Last week’s Anti-Terrorism Court verdict in Benazir’s assassination case represents nothing short of a black stain on Pakistan’s criminal justice system. Of the indelible kind.
It is telling that the ruling party’s top leadership is still decrying the ouster of Nawaz Sharif by the civilian courts as a grave threat to the country’s democratic long-term health. Yet it remains largely silent on the Benazir murder case — aside from the odd comment borne of political opportunism that seeks to position the SC and ATC verdicts on the same side of a ‘dishonourable’ (civilian) judicial system.
Sadly, it may well have a point. Especially given that it was the military courts that moved to have executed many of those accused in various assassination attempts against Gen (rtd) Musharraf. We note this not because we support the death penalty. We do not. We simply wish to draw a contrast. The ATC has acquitted the five Taliban suspects linked to Benazir’s murder over reported lack of evidence. This may or may not be surprising since allegations still stand that these men were already in the security establishment’s custody before her assassination. Also note that these are Taliban suspects and not suspected Taliban. The distinction is an important one.
Which begs the question as to what happens now? The fear is that they may walk free. This, after all, has happened before. Back in 2011 Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Asia Times Pakistan bureau chief, ran an investigative piece detailing how members of Al Qaeda had infiltrated the Pakistan Navy. The story alleged that after interrogating members of the terrorist cell in its custody — the Navy high command discharged the terrorists. Shahzad paid for the disclosures with his very life.
All of which naturally begs the question as to what will happen to the five acquitted Taliban. Ideally, they should be tried for crimes against the state for being part of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that seeks, like Al Qaeda, to overthrow the Pakistani state. If they do walk, however, this will send the country hurtling towards an even more dangerous path. For one thing, the Benazir case represented an opportunity to lend credibility to the country’s seemingly deeply flawed criminal justice system in terms of holding at least someone to account for murdering a Pakistani leader. Meaning that to this day ambiguity still surrounds the assassination of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. We still don’t have a definite answer as to on whose payroll the hit-man belonged. Similarly, we are no clearer today as we were nearly 30 years ago as to what or who caused Gen Zia’s plane to fatefully crash.
Benazir, in naming Musharraf as her would-be assassin, was definite in her claims that he and the institutions he represented would try and wriggle out of accountability and scapegoat the TTP. Thus the verdict at once lends credence to this claim while leaving unanswered and unpunished the real culprits. Who may or may not have been angered by her return to the country in the pre-election period. Or who may or may not have been irked by her electoral pledge to grant the IAEA access to AQ Khan.
Additionally, there is the question of the current American vitriol against this country on the grounds of us being an unreliable partner in the GWOT, namely for not flushing out the Haqqani network from its one-time safe-havens. If we are seen not to hold those to account that target us — it will simply prove Donald Trump right in his assessment. And none of us wants that.
Daily Times, September 5, 2017