A Pakistani anti-terrorism court on Thursday sentenced two police officers to 17 years in jail and declared former military ruler Pervez Musharraf a fugitive in the murder case of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The court in the garrison city of Rawalpindi acquitted five accused – all suspected members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – for lack of evidence.
The court’s verdict, which came almost a decade after Bhutto was assassinated, also directed authorities to seize the property and assets of Musharraf, who is now in self-imposed exile in Dubai.
As a “proclaimed offender” or fugitive, 74-year-old Musharraf must be arrested and brought to trial if he returns to Pakistan. He was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment in 2016 while awaiting trial in several cases.
One of the two police officials was found guilty by Judge Asghar Khan of mishandling security for the rally at which Bhutto was killed, and the other of mishandling the crime scene. They were also ordered to pay a fine of Rs 5 lakh each.
Bhutto, a graduate of Oxford and Harvard, was killed in a suicide attack at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, as she campaigned to return to power a little more than two months after returning from exile. The head of the Pakistan People’s Party and two-time prime minister was 54 years old.
Footage of the attack showed an assassin shot at her when she emerged through the sunroof of her armoured SUV and then blew himself up, killing 24 people.
This is not the first time Musharraf was declared a fugitive in the murder trial. In May 2011, he was declared a “proclaimed offender” by the same anti-terrorism court. At the time, he was living in self-exile in Britain and Dubai and had refused to cooperate in the trial.
In 2013, Musharraf was charged of being culpable in Bhutto’s murder.
The case was registered soon after Bhutto’s assassination but the trial, which started in January 2008, witnessed numerous ups and down, including the assassination of the chief prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, in Islamabad in May 2013. Eight different judges heard the case.
Soon after the verdict was announced, Bhutto’s daughter Aseefa Bhutto Zardari tweeted: “10 years later and we still await justice. Abettors punished but those truly guilty of my mothers murder roam free.”
She said in another tweet, “There will be no justice till Pervez Musharraf answers for his crimes.”
Initially, Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was blamed for the assassination and Musharraf’s regime issued a recording of an intercepted conversation in which Mehsud was purportedly heard congratulating another man for the murder.
Chief prosecutor Mohammad Azhar Chaudhry, in his concluding arguments, disowned the recording and transcript of the conversation, and described it as a story cooked up by Musharraf to mislead investigators and save himself.
The PPP benefited from a sympathy wave after Bhutto’s assassination and won the general election in 2008. Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari went on to form the government and become the first Pakistani president to complete a full term.