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Pakistan's lead prosecutor in Bhutto case killed

Saturday - 5/4/2013, 6:16am  ET

People comfort a family member of Pakistani prosecutor Chaudhry Zulfikar who was assassinated, at a mortuary in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, May 3, 2013. Gunmen killed Pakistan's lead prosecutor investigating the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto as he drove to court in the capital on Friday, throwing the case that also involves former ruler Pervez Musharraf into disarray. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

MUNIR AHMED
Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Gunmen on Friday killed the lead Pakistani prosecutor in two high-profile cases -- the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the brutal assault on civilians in Mumbai -- shocking a country reeling from Taliban attacks as it prepares for nationwide elections.

Chaudhry Zulfikar Ali was gunned down in a hail of bullets as he drove to court in the normally quiet capital, where a concentration of diplomats, government and military officials and aid workers live. Nobody claimed responsibility for the killing, but as Ali's work put him in direct conflict with militant groups, suspicion immediately fell on them.

The shooting in Islamabad comes as Pakistan prepares for nationwide elections on May 11. Taliban militants have tried to derail the elections with a wave of shootings and bombings aimed at candidates. Also on Friday, in the southern city of Karachi, gunmen killed an anti-Taliban election candidate along with his 6-year-old son and a political activist.

Ali was leading the prosecution against several suspected Taliban militants as well as former military ruler Pervez Musharraf for alleged roles in the 2007 Bhutto assassination. He was also prosecuting militants linked to the 2008 terror attack in the Indian city of Mumbai.

The lawyer was on his way to a court in Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, when gunmen shot him in the head, shoulder and chest, and then fled, said police officer Arshad Ali. Bullets hit the prosecutor at least 13 times, and his car was left pockmarked with bullets and with a shattered windshield.

Under the massive trauma, Ali lost control of his car and hit a woman passing by and killed her, said another police officer, Mohammed Rafiq. His bodyguard returned fire and is believed to have wounded at least one of the attackers, Rafiq added.

Though Pakistan has experienced rampant violence in recent years, it's rare for such an attack to happen in the capital.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst, said it was difficult to say who might have been responsible for the attack because Ali was involved in a number of dangerous prosecutions.

But he said the fact that someone was able to kill such a prominent government official and then escape in what is supposed to be the most protected city in the country and highlights the inability of the state to protect its citizens against militancy.

"The Pakistani state is helpless," he said. "These groups have the initiative with them and the state simply reacts to that."

Members of the legal community have been especially vulnerable in Pakistan's ongoing war with militants. As there are no witness protection programs, people are often reluctant to testify in cases. Judges and lawyers have been threatened and attacked. As a result, the country has an abysmally low conviction rate for terrorism related cases.

Bhutto's husband, President Asif Ali Zardari, strongly condemned the prosecutor's slaying and called for a thorough investigation.

A motive for the killing was unclear, but Ali's involvement in the two particularly high-profile cases will likely be scrutinized closely.

Government prosecutors have accused Musharraf of being involved in the Bhutto assassination and not providing enough security to Pakistan's first female prime minister. Musharraf, who was in power when Bhutto was killed, has denied the allegations. At the time of the attack, he blamed the assassination on the Pakistani Taliban.

The Bhutto case has lingered for years in the Pakistani court system. A number of alleged assailants are on trial but no one has been convicted. The case burst into the headlines when Musharraf returned in March after four years in exile.

The prosecutor told reporters that he had received death threats recently in connection with the case but did not say from whom.

Ali's colleagues described him as a highly competent prosecutor.

"He had a vast experience of handling complicated and high-profile cases and because of his competence he was assigned the Benazir Bhutto case and some other cases," said Ashraf Gujar.

Ali was also the government's lead prosecutor in a case related to the 2008 terrorist attack on the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people. The attack was blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Pakistan has put seven men on trial on charges they assisted in the Mumbai siege, but the trial has made little progress. India has criticized Pakistan for not doing more to crack down on the militants blamed for the attack. Hafiz Saeed, the head of a group believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, remains free, and many believe he enjoys the protection of the government. Lashkar-e-Taiba was founded years ago with the help of Pakistani intelligence to put pressure on India over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

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