Today is the 41st anniversary of the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan
By Waseem Altaf
Military dictator Ziaul Haq imposed martial law in Pakistan on July 5, 1977. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and all his cabinet ministers were arrested and assemblies dissolved. The constitution was suspended and civil rights set aside. The validity of martial law was challenged in the Supreme Court which validated it on November 10, 1977, under the doctrine of necessity.
Bhutto was released on July 29, 1977, but was again arrested on September 3, 1977, on the charge of ordering the murder of Nawab Mohammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri, a political opponent. However, when Justice K.M.A. Samdani of the Lahore High Court found the evidence “contradictory and incomplete”. He ordered Bhutto’s release on September 13, 1977. Military dictator Zia removed Justice Samdani from his post. Three days later on the night of September 16, 1977, army commandos “climbed the walls of “Al-Murtaza” in Larkana, knocked out all the guards and arrested ZA. Bhutto.
Bhutto’s trial began on October 24, 1977 and he was arraigned before the Lahore High Court instead of a lower court, thus depriving him of one level of appeal. Five new judges were appointed, headed by acting Chief Justice Molvi Mushtaq Hussain who was known for harboring a personal grudge against Bhutto. CJ Mushtaq was a Zia appointee and hailed from his hometown Jullundhur. Bhutto was charged with murder and abetment.
The defunct Federal Security Forces(FSF) Director-General Masood Mahmood became an approver and testified against Bhutto. He claimed Bhutto had ordered Kasuri’s assassination and that four members of the FSF had organized the ambush on Bhutto’s orders. The four alleged assassins were arrested and later retrieved a confessional statement from them. They were brought into court as “co-accused” but one of them recanted his testimony, declaring that it had been extracted from him under duress.
The following day, the witness was not present in court and the prosecution claimed that he had suddenly “fallen ill”. When Bhutto began his testimony on 25th January 1978, Chief Justice Maulvi Mushtaq closed the courtroom to all observers. Bhutto demanded a retrial, accusing the Chief Justice of bias. The court refused his demand.
On 18 March 1978, Bhutto was sentenced to death.
In May 1978, Begum Nusrat Bhutto filed an appeal before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The courageously independent Chief Justice of Pakistan Yaqub Ali Khan was forced to retire by the 22nd July but only three days before his forced retirement, he admitted Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s petition in the SC challenging the constitutionality of her husband’s detention. A nine-member bench was constituted to hear the appeal.
The bench was headed by Justice Anwarul Haq who was very close to Zia. He had no legal training and had entered the judicial service through the backdoor as an administrator, But he had the distinction of being a friend of General Zia and hailed from Jullundhur. They both realized that out of the nine judges, five were inclined to overturn the verdict of Lahore High Court, hence, the case was adjourned till the end of July 1978, so that one of the judges namely Qaiser Khan would retire. Another one, namely Justice Waheeduddin Ahmad fell ill. The expected majority (in Bhutto’s favour) was reduced to minority and the decision taken by the Lahore High Court was upheld by 4 to 3 judges.
The three judges who acquitted Bhutto — were Justice Dorab Patel of Balochistan, Justice Safdar Shah of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Justice Mohammed Halim of Sindh as they could not find any direct evidence for the conspiracy to murder. The four judges who awarded death sentence to Bhutto were all from Punjab. The review petition was dismissed on 24th March 1979 and Bhutto was hanged on April 4, 1979 despite hundreds of clemency appeals by many heads of state from all over the world.
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark having witnessed the trial later wrote: “the prosecution’s case was based entirely on several witnesses who were detained until they confessed, who changed and expanded their confessions and testimony with each reiteration, who contradicted themselves and each other, who, except for Masood Mahmood… were relating what others said, whose testimony led to four different theories of what happened, absolutely uncorroborated by an eyewitness, direct evidence, or physical evidence.”
Never before in the judicial history of Pakistan, any abettor was awarded capital punishment especially when there was a split decision: three judges acquitted Bhutto against four who held him guilty.
Moreover, the case was all based on circumstantial evidence and statements of approvers. There were no witnesses and no proof of Bhutto’s direct involvement. Despite that, he was hanged. Former federal Secretary Roedad Khan said that Zia had told him that “it is his neck or mine.”
Bhutto’s body was flown to Larkana overnight in a C-130 aircraft and hurriedly buried. Tens of thousands wanted to see the face of the dead Bhutto. His face was there but almost none to have the last sight. Almost nine years later, on 17 August 1988, Ziaul Haq died in an air crash in Multan. So many wanted to see his face but the face was not there!