By Ahmed Yusuf
Pakistan People’s Party-Shaheed Bhutto (PPP-SB) Chairman Mir Murtaza Bhutto was gunned down on September 20, 1996 near his house. Six others – Ashiq Jatoi, Sattar Rajpar, Shajad Haider Ghakro, Rahim Brohi, Yar Mohammad Baloch, and Wajahat Jokhio – also sustained fatal injuries. Most newspaper stories and subsequent reports described the incident as a "murder", but the matter was always debated in august courtrooms. It is there, in two sessions courts, that it turned out that this was a case without a "culprit".
Two first information reports (FIRs) were registered after the incident, but inaction on the part of the authorities concerned forced Ghinwa Bhutto and Badrunissa Jatoi, widows of Mir Murtaza Bhutto and Ashiq Jatoi respectively, to appeal to the Sindh High Court that an FIR be registered. The appeal was upheld and a decision granted on November 11, 1996 – some six days after the Benazir government fell.
A third FIR was subsequently registered against 22 men at the Clifton Police Station by Noor Mohammed, said to be Murtaza’s guardian since childhood. The accused included the then Deputy Inspector-General (DIG) Police Shoaib Suddle, Intelligence Bureau Director General Masood Sharif Khattak, Senior Superintendent Police (SSP) Wajid Durrani, Assistant Superintendent Police (ASP) Shahid Hayat, ASP Rai Tahir, Napier Station House Officer (SHO) Agha Jamil, Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Abdul Basit, Sub-Inspector (SI) Shabbir Qaimkhani, Head Constable (HC) Faisal Hafeez, HC Raja Hameed, and police constables Ghulam Shabbir, Zulfiqar Ahmed, Zakir Mehmood, Zafar Iqbal, Gulzar Khan, Ghulam Mustafa, Muslim Shah and Ahmed.
Four other PPP-SB workers, who had travelled in Bhutto’s caravan that night: Dr Mazhar Memon, Asghar Ali, Mohammed Ayaz Dayo and Mohammed Ismail, were witness to the incident, and survived injuries. Two police officials, ASP Shahid Hayat and SHO Haq Nawaz Sial were also injured at the time. During the course of investigation, it was revealed that Sial registered the first FIR. He was unfortunately assassinated before judgment could be pronounced.
An SHC tribunal, led by former judge Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, was formed. This tribunal declared that the incident could not have occurred without orders from the "very top" – a term that dragged Asif Ali Zardari, the spouse of the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, into the case. The findings of the tribunal were barred from being presented as evidence in the matter under the lower court proceedings.
A counter case was also lodged by police official Haq Nawaz Sial, who had stated that Murtaza Bhutto and his comrades shot at the police party stationed near 70 Clifton when they were signalled to stop. Twelve men were named in the case. Through the course of the next thirteen years, a number of judges heard some part of the case, before they would be transferred or the case moved from their court. Interestingly, one of the female judges, Yasmin Abbasi, applied to the SHC to be relieved of her duties of hearing the case, stating that she was "finding it increasingly difficult to hear the case due to the blatant non-cooperation of the accused". The high court noted that since she was a woman, "it was beyond her capacity to deal with the case."
In the year 2003, the case was transferred to District Sessions Judge (DSJ)-East Ali Sain Dino Metlo, followed in 2004 by Zafar Ahmed Khan Sherwani. Regardless, there were 223 witnesses in the case, but the prosecution managed to examine only 73 of them.
Similar hindrances also occurred at the investigation side. The probe was temporarily stopped on December 16, 1996 after AIG Noor Mohammed Pacheho, the man conducting the investigations, was suspended. Pacheho, who retired as an SSP in the year 2007, told the court of Additional District and Sessions Judge (ADSJ)-East Aftab Ahmed Khan that he was inspecting the case, which started on October 10, 1996, but he had no records after December 16, 1996. He had submitted a list of people suspected to be involved to the courts, but was suspended from duty the very same day.
Charges of conspiring-to-murder could not be adequately proved and hence Zardari, now the president of the country, could not be indicted. The only word to prove the argument was Noor Mohammed’s, who had told a reporter that Asif Zardari had been curt over the phone when Ghinwa called him in the wake of the murder. His account could not be verified in the court of law.
Zardari later filed a plea in the SHC to quash criminal proceedings against him in the case, as the prosecution could not prove its charges for about 11-and-a-half years. The court of Justice Sabir Shah observed that the applicant’s name was not mentioned in the three FIRs, nor did the complainant nominate Zardari as accused while registering the case. The court noted that no other witnesses were left to be examined, and even if more witnesses were to be examined, the prosecution will not succeed in improving its case against the applicant. The court thus granted the plea on April 9, 2008.
Another accused who was acquitted was Shakaib Qureshi, a superintendent of police (SP) in Saddar. Shakaib Qureshi went to London and returned only after the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government came into power. His declared status of absconder changed, and upon his return, his case was segregated from the main case and hurriedly disposed of. The court of DSJ-East Abdur Rehman Bhatti exonerated Qureshi on November 14, 2008 due to a lack of evidence despite a lapse of about 12 years.
The judge, Abdul Rehman Bhatti, was transferred soon after acquitting Qureshi, and Zareef Qureshi was appointed ADJ-East to hear the case. Zareef Qureshi did not hear the matter in his last four hearings, and was also transferred. Judge Aftab Ahmed was then appointed ADJ-East, who heard the rest of the case. During this time, the other key accused named in FIR no. 443/1996, the one lodged by Noor Mohammed, not only managed to secure bail but also furthered their careers. Wajid Ali Durrani is now serving as the AIG, Karachi, Shoaib Suddle as Federal Tax Ombudsman, and Shahid Hayat as AIG, Welfare.
The judgment of the counter case came first, on December 4, 2009. The court declared that all the 12 accused, including absconders, had to be given the benefit of doubt, as "glaring contradictions" were discovered in the evidence. The verdict held that the prosecution miserably failed to establish its case against the accused. The then ASP Shahid Hayat and Clifton SHO Haq Nawaz Sial had sustained injuries, but it was not clear who fired at them.
The court held that investigation was also not thorough, and the corpses were not identified properly – as a result of which the post mortem report showed details of unknown individuals. The order further said that though a criminologist report stated that the accused had fired from their weapons, no bullet cases were recovered from the site of the crime. The prosecution’s inability to prove the charge of Section 320 (premeditated murder) of the Pakistan Penal Code against the accused was also highlighted. The next day, on December 5, all 18 accused were honourably exonerated from the Mir Murtaza Bhutto murder case. The judge observed that there was not ample incriminatory evidence against the accused, and that the prosecution failed to prove its case due to a number of loopholes and gaps, either on the part of investigation or the prosecution.
In the detailed order, the court said that the exonerations of Asif Zardari and Shakaib Qureshi had provided a precedent, as conspiracy-to-murder could not be proved against the accused. The court maintained that, "the offence of conspiracy cannot be proved through surmises" and that, "speculative conspiracy theory in the present case is absolutely devoid of substance". The judgment held that the police were authorised to check the caravan, as Bhutto’s guards were known to be heavily armed with sophisticated weaponry. The court also rejected allegations that Bhutto was shifted to the hospital late, stating that one of the accused, Rai Tahir, had immediately shifted Bhutto to the nearby Mid-East Hospital, which was fully equipped with all medical facilities.
Bhutto’s advocate Omar Sial, who was baffled after the judgment was pronounced, said, "It is a judgment that is incorrect and we will certainly appeal to the superior courts of Pakistan. I am also quite surprised to see how the English language and grammar of the learned trial judge has improved overnight while pronouncing the two judgments. I am also of the view that the manner in which the two judgments in a case and counter-case have been pronounced is by itself indicative of the decisions which are incorrect and beyond the jurisdiction of the trial court." The PPP-SB, according to Sial, would raise all issues in the appeal to be filed in the SHC. "We will continue our quest for justice," he said after receiving the copies of the detailed judgment.