Plan afoot to hold trial in Benazir case through video-link

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ISLAMABAD: Taking benefit of a recent amendment to Section 21 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, the prosecution plans to conduct trial of the accused in Benazir Bhutto murder case through video-link from Adiala jail. Ms Bhutto was assassinated at Liaquat Bagh on December 27, 2007 in gun-bomb attack, in which 22 other people were also killed. The trial in Benazir murder case has been pending in the ATC for about seven years.

Benazir Bhutto murder trial lingers on

On June 5, the parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill, amending Section 21 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, which says: “Trial may be held on jail premises or through video-link.”

Under the said amendment, “screens may be used during the trial to shield witnesses, judges and prosecutors from public view.”

Initially, Rafaqat Hussain, Husnain Gul, Sher Zaman, Aitezaz Shah and Abdul Rashid were put on trial in November 2008.

Three years later, the prosecution nominated the then city police officer (CPO) Rawalpindi, Saud Aziz, and SP Khurram Shehzad in the case. The court scrapped the previous proceedings and started the trial of the accused afresh.

After the indictment of Gen Musharraf in April last year, the proceedings in the case started again, and so far 20 out of 130 witnesses have been examined.

In August last year, because of slow progress in the case, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) formally became a complainant in the case.

According to the prosecution, security factor as well as travel to Adiala jail was one of the reasons for the slow progress in the Benazir murder case.

In May last year, a special public prosecutor Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali was murdered while he was on his way to the ATC Rawalpindi.

According to the prosecution, the terrorists are still extending threats to the prosecutors, witnesses and officials of the FIA.

A senior prosecutor confirmed that the FIA would file an application with the ATC, seeking permission for trial through video-link.

“Since the trial of the accused is being carried out at Adiala jail, ensuring presence of witnesses in the jail at times becomes a problem for the prosecution,” said Chaudhry Mohammad Azhar, a senior public prosecutor in the Benazir murder case.

“Even the jail trial is not convenient for the ATC judge as he has to put off other cases for next day, he said.

He expressed the hope that video conferencing would speed up the trial in the Benazir murder case and after applying some newly adopted sections in the ATA, the lives of judges, witnesses and prosecutors might also be secured.

Explaining the methodology for trial through video-link, the prosecutor said that a room in the Adiala Jail would be converted into an extension of the ATC and it would be equipped with the camera, sound system and other necessary equipment.

Same equipment would also be installed at the ATC. The judge, prosecutors and witnesses would be present in the ATC whereas the accused would be in a specified room of the jail, he added.

The prosecutor said that 3-G technology would be used for connecting the ATC with Adiala jail. Sardar Mohammad Latif Khan Khosa, PPP secretary-general and a senior counsel in the Benazir murder case, seemed not optimistic about the video-link idea.

When contacted, Mr Khosa said it was an irony that a great leader could not get justice even after seven years of her murder.

“Basically, our criminal justice system was responsible for the delay in the trial in this case,” he said.

He said after indictment of Gen Musharraf last year, he requested the court to separate the trial of former military ruler from the other accused but my request was not entertained.