A man charged with killing Pakistan’s former Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, in March 2011 has been released on bail of about $10,000 by a Pakistani court.
Umar Abdullah was released July 11 after being arrested in September 2013. He has been accused of having ties with Al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an offshoot of the Afghanistan Taliban.
Bhatti was killed leaving his Islamabad home when gunmen pelted his car with bullets, hitting him several times. Before leaving the scene, the assassins scattered leaflets that called him a ‘Christian infidel,’ and stated he was killed for heading a committee set up to review Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which forbid insulting Islam.
The Taliban offshoot eventually took responsibility for killing Bhatti. His driver, Gul Sher, survived and told police there were three or four assailants and at least one of them opened fire. Sher sought protection, but when this did not happen, he fled abroad and sought asylum.
The time following the murder has been marked by lax investigations, a series of freed suspects and lack of coordination across law enforcement organizations, which have raised suspicions of a possible cover-up.
Zia-ul-Rehman was arrested in connection with Bhatti’s murder, but acquitted in May 2012 due to lack of evidence. In August 2013 Hammad Adil was arrested for an attempted attack on a Shiite mosque and for “planning attacks on some key installations in Islamabad.”
The police also recovered a vehicle from his residence laden with 120 kilograms of explosives. During investigation Adil confessed that he and Muhammad Tanveer, a Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab ringleader in Islamabad, had also killed Bhatti with the help of Umar Abdullah.
One suspect confesses to Bhatti’s assassination
Tanveer and Abdullah were arrested for a short period, during which Abdullah confessed to killing a prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfiqar, who had handled several sensitive cases, including the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Zulfiqar’s bodyguard had shot Abdullah in the back and paralysed him in that incident; Abdullah was arrested in a private hospital as he was recovering. He had already been granted bail awaiting trial for Zulfiqar’s murder; this second bail means he was able to leave the prison.
Adil told the police that prior to the Minorities’ Minister’s attack they had studied Bhatti’s movements for a few days. Bhatti died as he left his mother’s home, when his bodyguard was absent.
Rana Abdul Hameed, a lawyer in Bhatti’s case, told World Watch Monitor that Umer Abdullah was not released on bail on legal merit, but on medical grounds because of the paralysis; He is wheeled to his court appearances on a bed. “If Abdullah recovers, then he would again be arrested while Adil is still detained,” Hameed said.
Hammad Adil and Umer Abdullah filed a petition in the trial court to quash the case against them due to lack of evidence, Hameed said. “About two weeks ago the anti-terrorism court rejected their plea so the trial is going on against them,” he added.
Sikandar Bhatti, the younger brother of Shahbaz Bhatti and the complainant in the case, expressed dissatisfaction over the release on bail of Abdullah.
“If one of the men accused of killing my brother has been released on bail, then how to expect justice in the case?” he said. “The problem is that even judges are afraid of terrorists, especially after the killing of a judge in a suicide attack.”
In April a suicide bomber killed 11 people, including a judge, in Rawalpindi Sessions Court. In 1997 the former Lahore High Court justice, Arif Iqbal Bhatti (no relation) was killed after acquitting two Christians in a blasphemy case. Judge Pervez Ali Shah, who convicted Mumtaz Qadri for killing Governor Salmaan Taseer, fled Pakistan in October 2011. Taseer had been killed after calling the blasphemy laws “black laws” and for supporting Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in November 2011.
Lawyer Hameed said terrorists also have threatened him, witnesses and Bhatti’s brothers to deter them from pursuing the case. He said an application was submitted to the trial judge to either transfer the case to Lahore or Faisalabad where they all live so they can arrange for their own security, or to provide security if the trial has to be conducted in Islamabad. The application for security was submitted “after death threats on the phone and by letter, and at best the trial judge ordered the Islamabad Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) to provide security to us…The CCPO has not even bothered to contact us, let alone provide us security. We do want justice, but not at the cost of lives of our family members,” he said.
In February, another brother of Shahbaz, Paul Bhatti, who returned to Pakistan to run political affairs after Shahbaz’ death, received death threats, after which he went back to Italy, where he now lives for his own safety.