KARACHI, Dec 5 A sessions court acquitted on Saturday all 18 policemen in a case pertaining to the murder of Murtaza Bhutto and his associates.

The chief of Pakistan People's Party (Shaheed Bhutto) and seven of his associates were gunned down on Sept 20, 1996, near Mr Murtaza's residence in Clifton in an alleged encounter with police.

Those acquitted on Saturday were Shoaib Suddle, the then DIG of Sindh police; Masood Sharif, ex-director-general of Intelligence Bureau; SSP Wajid Durrani, ASP Shahid Hayat, SHO of the Napier police station Inspector Agha Mohammed Jameel, ASP Rai Mohammed Tahir, sub-inspector Shahbbir Ahmed Qaimkhani, ASI Abdul Basit, head constable Faisal Hafeez, head constable Raja Hameed, and police constables Ghulam Shabbir, Zulfiqar Ahmed, Zakir Mehmood, Zafar Iqbal, Ahmed Jan, Gulzir Khan, Ghulam Mustafa and Muslim Shah.

Aftab Ahmed, Additional District and Sessions Judge (East), pronounced a short order, saying that reasons for the acquittal would be recorded in a detained judgment.

Before announcing the verdict, the judge observed that there were curtain lapses in investigation and prosecution. He clarified these observations may not be treated as part of the judgment.

The accused, who were on bail, appeared in court on Saturday.

The trial took over 13 years to conclude since a number of judges had sent references to the Singh High Court, stating that they could not conduct the proceedings and requested transfer to another court, lengthy cross-exanimation of witnesses by the defence, long adjournments sought by defence counsel, absence of Asif Ali Zardari when he was staying abroad and a lack of interest of the prosecution witnesses.

Mr Zardari and Shakeeb Ahmed Qureshi, who was an SP at the time, were also nominated as accused in the case. However, Mr Zardari had moved a review application in the Sindh High Court and on April 9 last year, Justice Syed Pir Ali Shah allowed the plea and acquitted him.

Earlier, the trial court dismissed the acquittal plea of Mr Zardari. Mr Qureshi was exonerated on Nov 14 last year when the sessions judge Abdul Rahman Bhatti allowed his acquittal application moved under Section 265-K of CrPC.

According to the prosecution, on Sept 20, 1996 Murtaza Bhutto and his supporters were coming back after attending a public meeting in Yousuf Goth, Surjani Town, when a police party intercepted them at 8.30pm near his Clifton residence, but Murtaza Bhutto and his associates — Ashiq Ali Jatoi, Abdul Sattar Rajpar, Rahman Brohi, Yar Mohammad Baloch, Sajjad Haider, Wajahat Jokhio and Kausar Zaidi — were killed in an alleged encounter and Dr Mazhar Memon, Asghar Ali, Mohammad Ayaz and Mohammad Ismail sustained injures. A taxi driver was killed and two police officials were also wounded in the incident.

The investigation officer had placed 223 prosecution witnesses in the charge-sheet. However, the prosecution examined 73 witnesses in the case. Abdullah Shah, then chief minister of Sindh, and inspector Zeeshan Kazmi (now dead) were shown as absconding accused in the charge-sheet.

Earlier, in their final arguments, defence lawyers contended that their clients were framed in the case with mala fide intentions and on political grounds.

They said that neither the prosecution witnesses had identified the accused nor had they specifically testified against them.

They argued that police were trying to arrest Murtaza Bhutto's associates as a case had been registered against them for attacking the CIA centre. However, they opened fire on the police, injuring Shahid Hayat and Haq Nawaz Sial, they said.

They maintained that there were material contradictions in the statements of witnesses and the prosecution had miserably failed to produce any valid evidence against their clients. They pleaded for their clients' acquittal.

The counsel for the complainant contended that the police had destroyed the evidence by washing down the place of the scene of the incident before the inspection of the first investigation officer of case.

He maintained that the accused hampered the process of investigation and also influenced the court proceedings and subsequently some record of the case went missing while the judicial magistrate who recorded the statements of witnesses under Section 164 (power to record statements and confessions) of the criminal procedure code did not turn up before the trial court.

He said that a medical board declared that injuries of Shahid Hayat and Haq Nawaz Sial were self-inflicted.

The complainant's counsel further argued that the policemen placed as prosecution witnesses in the case were present at the place of incident, but they concealed the facts before the court since their superiors were accused in the case.

He alleged that the judges who acquitted the co-accused, Asif Ali Zardari and Shakeeb Qureshi, in the case did not consider the evidence available on record. Therefore, he said, the complainant party lost faith in the judiciary.

He further contended that the police were not trying to arrest Mir Murtaza Bhutto and his associates for attacking the CIA centre, but intended to eliminate them and the victims were targeted by police through snipers.

He concluded that the prosecution had successfully established the involvement of all the accused in the case and sought capital punishment for them.

The special public prosecutor said that the prosecution had proved its case and pleaded for conviction of the accused.

A case was registered at Clifton police station under Section 302/34 of the Pakistan Penal Code on a complaint by Noor Mohammad, a servant of Murtaza Bhutto.

The complainant's lawyer said the decision to challenge the verdict in a higher court will be taken by the PPP (SB).

MOURNING Pakistan People's Party (Shaheed Bhutto) has decided to observe a seven-day mourning against the acquittal.

The party's provincial chief appealed at a press conference in Karachi to leaders and workers of all political and social organisation, lawyers and the people of Sindh to “support the party in its protest against the trial court judgment”.

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