In this Dec. 27, 2007 photo, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto waves to her supporters during her last public rally, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash, File)

In this Dec. 27, 2007 photo, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto waves to her supporters during her last public rally, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash, File)

Pakistan verdict on Bhutto assassination angers supporters

By Munir Ahmed / Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani court on Thursday sentenced two former police officers to 17 years in prison for failing to protect former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but the same court acquitted five suspected militants who had confessed to taking part in her 2007 assassination.

Farhatullah Babar, the spokesman for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, expressed “disappointment and shock” over the verdict, saying “justice has not been done.”

Bhutto, then a prominent opposition leader, was killed by a suicide bomber who rushed her motorcade as she was campaigning to replace then-President Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf, who has been accused of complicity in the assassination, pleaded not guilty at a 2013 court appearance and now lives in self-imposed exile. The judge on Thursday ordered his property seized after he failed to appear in court.

Bhutto became the first woman elected to lead a Muslim-majority country in 1988, when she first became prime minister. She was the daughter of another former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1977 after being deposed in a coup. She served as prime minister again from 1993-1996.

At the time of her assassination in December 2007, she was a leading opposition figure running to replace Musharraf, who had seized power in a bloodless coup eight years earlier. He was forced to resign in disgrace when her party returned to power in an election held shortly after her death, in 2008.

Bhutto had repeatedly spoken out against Islamic militant groups, and prior to her assassination had vowed to shut down militant sanctuaries near the border with Afghanistan.

Musharraf’s government blamed Bhutto’s killing on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2009. Mehsud denied killing Bhutto.

The judge acquitted the five suspects for lack of evidence although they had confessed during the investigation, Prosecutor Khawaja Imtiaz said. It was not immediately clear why the judge threw out the confessions, but Imtiaz said the government may appeal.

Imtiaz said the two former police officers, Saud Aziz and Khurram Shahzad, also had the right to appeal. Aziz was Rawalpindi police chief at the time of Bhutto’s killing.

Bhutto’s party, as well as the prosecution, charged that Aziz ordered the crime scene hosed down immediately after the killing before investigators could collect evidence. The prosecution also said the two police officers did not provide sufficient security to Bhutto after she received death threats from militants.

Babar, the spokesman for Bhutto’s party, said the acquittal of the suspected militants “seems a triumph of al-Qaida.” He said that while the court convicted the two officers, it did not determine who had ordered them to destroy evidence.

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