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Remembering Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Decades after his execution, questions persist over the manner in which courts declared the PPP founder guilty of ‘conspiracy to murder’

by Khaled Ahmed

Syeda Hameed’s book, Born to be Hanged (Rupa 2017), pays tribute to Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose death bequeathed to the Pakistani national memory a permanent challenge to the “frequent accident” of military rule.

On July 5, 1977, then-Army chief General Ziaul Haq imposed martial law in Pakistan. Then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) was overthrown, and replaced with the Chief of Army Staff, who appointed himself the Chief Martial Law Administrator. The PPP had won the March 1977 elections with an overwhelming majority (136 seats in the National Assembly to the Pakistan National Alliance’s 36), but was faced with allegations that the polling had been rigged, with the PNA coalition—“helped by the ISI”—mounting several protests against its rule. The resultant unrest ultimately saw General Zia seizing power.

Bhutto’s arrest

Following the imposition of martial law, Bhutto was tried on a charge of conspiracy to murder his political opponent, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, who was an active member of the opposition in Parliament and a virulent critic of ZAB and his government; an attack on Kasuri in November 1974 that he survived had resulted in the death of his father, Nawab Muhammad Khan. Following the imposition of martial law, ZAB was confined to a mess at Rawalpindi before being taken to Abbottabad, where he was kept till the end of July 1977.

Gen. Zia formally placed ZAB under arrest on Sept. 3, accusing him of entering into a conspiracy with Masood Mahmud and some other officers from the Federal Security Force for the murder of Kasuri’s father. He was arrested from his home in Karachi at 5:20 a.m. and brought to Lahore, where he was sent to Kot Lakhpat prison. On Sept. 11, police filed an incomplete challan before a magistrate at Lahore, which was sent to the Sessions Court before the state moved an application for the transfer of the case to the Lahore High Court. The very next day, Acting Chief Justice Maulvi Mushtaq Hussain passed an order transferring the case to the LHC and constituted a bench of five judges headed by himself to hear it.

Calling back Justice Mushtaq

Justice Mushtaq Hussain was in Europe when Zia declared martial law. He was called back to preside over the bench to try the prime minister. On Sept. 14, 1977, Justice M.A. Samdani ordered his release against bail of Rs. 50,000. Upon his release, ZAB immediately held a press conference in Lahore before leaving for Karachi and onwards to Larkana. It was from there that he was arrested for the last time; he would never see his ancestral home again.

Justice Mushtaq had a personal rivalry with ZAB. At one point, the PPP founder had prevented him becoming the chief justice of the Lahore High Court by blocking his request to transfer from Lahore to Karachi. When approached with the plea that ZAB’s life be spared, he responded: “If I don’t hang him, there is no other judge in Pakistan who will dare do that.”

Throughout his detention and trial, Bhutto never gave the impression that he was dispirited, nor did he show any signs of distress or despair. To quote his court submission: “Since the 18th of March 1978 [the day he was sentenced to death by the High Court] I have spent 22 to 23 hours out of the 24 in a congested and suffocating death cell. I have been hemmed in by its sordidness and stink throughout the heat and rain of the long hot summer. The light is poor. My eyesight has worsened. My health has been shattered. I have been in solitary confinement for almost a year but my morale is high because I am not made of the wood which burns easily. Through sheer will power, in conditions that are adverse in the extreme, I have written this rejoinder. Let all the White Papers come. I do not have to defend myself.”

Enter Justice Anwarul Haq

On Sept. 20, Begum Nusrat Bhutto submitted a Habeas Corpus application in the Supreme Court challenging the orders of arrest of her husband as unconstitutional and illegal. On Sept. 22, 1977, General Zia announced that the office of the Chief Justice had fallen vacant, and Chief Justice Yakub Ali Khan would be replaced by Anwarul Haq. ZAB objected to Anwarul Haq hearing his appeal for the following reasons: that he had publicly criticized Bhutto’s government and party, and declared General Zia ‘a national savior’; that he was closely associated with the chief justice of the Lahore High Court, which had pronounced him guilty; that he had acted as head of state during President Fazal Ilahi Chaudhry’s absence abroad during the martial law regime; and that he had temporarily merged the military executive with the judiciary.

On Oct. 22, 1977, ZAB made a three-hour-long speech before the Supreme Court in support of his petition for release. On Nov. 10, 1977, the Supreme Court dismissed the application for ZAB’s release and rejected the submission about the unconstitutionality of the processes of the law. It held that the imposition of martial law, although an extra-constitutional step, was validated by the “doctrine of necessity” as the constitutional and moral authority of Bhutto’s government had completely broken down.

Begum Bhutto leads

While ZAB was in prison, the PPP was led by his wife, Begum Nusrat, who was assisted by their daughter, Benazir Bhutto. The weekly Al-Fatah reported on how she was attacked at the Gaddafi Stadium: “While wielding dandas (sticks) on the PPP supporters, a superintendent of police shouted to a policeman pointing at Begum Nusrat: ‘Attack this woman.’ He lifted his lathi and brought it down on her head. Blood gushed out and she fell to the ground. The SP was seen smiling.”

On Jan. 24, 1978, ZAB’s statement was recorded in open court. He said he was not presenting his defense but had confined himself to two issues (1) Reason for this trial and the fabricated case against him; (2) No confidence in getting a fair trial and justice. On March 22, 1978, the edition of PPP-supporting newspaper Musawat was sealed and its distribution stopped after the publication of a letter of ZAB to Yahya Bakhtiar, in which he described military authorities as dirty, miserable and slinking men. A few days later, on March 27, 1978, police raided Musawat’s Karachi office and seized all copies containing reports of ZAB’s appeal to the Supreme Court. Abbas Athar, a popular freelance journalist, was arrested for trying to publish ZAB’s speech in the court. The press was seized while the statement was being printed. On April 23, 1978, the editor of newspaper Sadaqat was likewise arrested. Zia observed at a press conference: “One or two public hangings will bring saboteurs to their senses.”

New laws bring death

On Feb. 10, 1979, President Zia announced that Pakistan’s legal system would be replaced by the traditional Islamic code. Punishments now included lashes, stoning to death, amputation of right hand, amputation of left foot for first and second offense and life sentence for third offense. On Feb. 24, 1979, Bhutto’s counsel presented a petition to the Supreme Court to review its judgment with the request that the two judges who dropped off be recalled. The apex court refused. The five judges of the LHC who had presided over the trial of ZAB had given a guilty verdict unanimously. The Supreme Court, during appeal, have a four-to-three judgment in favor of the guilty ruling. While all nine judges of the Supreme Court commenced hearing the appeal, one of them—Qaisar Khan—retired from the court after superannuation; while another, Justice Waheeduddin Ahmad, suffered a stroke near the conclusion of hearings.

The court waited three weeks for Ahmad’s recovery before resuming the hearing without him. The case proceedings concluded on Dec. 23, 1978, and judgement was rendered on Feb. 6, 1979. Chief Justice Anwarul Haq convicted ZAB and awarded him death penalty for a crime he deemed was “rarest of rare.” Senior journalist I.A. Rehman spoke about the fault-lines in the judgment: “In the case of death penalty, the court has to give unanimous decision; it has to be resolved beyond the slightest trace of doubt. But in this case at least 3 judges acquitted him, which means the doubt remained palpably unresolved.”

Ironies that survive

But what was this case? On Nov. 11 1974, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, an active member of the opposition in Parliament and a nasty critic of ZAB and his government, was returning home in his car after attending a marriage ceremony at Shadman Chowk in Lahore. A number of shots were fired at the car using automatic weapons. Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Khan, Kasuri’s father, was hit on the head and died on the spot. Kasuri, his mother, and sister escaped unhurt.

The huge irony which can only be termed destiny was that in 1931, Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Khan was the honorary magistrate of Kasur. It was in this exact spot that he had supervised the hanging of Bhagat Singh; the central jail located at Shadman Chowk had served as Singh’s prison. The roundabout in Shadman Colony, Lahore, where the execution chambers of the Lahore Central jail used to be, is where the former magistrate was shot in 1974.

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