The hanging of Bhutto
By Mohammad Asghar Khan
You are here Bhutto Trial

[The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Air Force]

It will be 23 years on April 4, 2002, since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged after a trial of doubtful judicial propriety. It would be well to examine the circumstances that led to this tragic event that is likely to haunt Pakistani politics for a long time.

Bhutto selected General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq for the post of Chief of the Army Staff when General Tikka Khan had completed his term of duty in this appointment on March 1, 1976. On assuming this post, Zia-ul-Haq superseded a number of officers senior to him in service. He attracted Bhutto's attention when as a Divisional Commander, he invited him to various functions. He was lavish in his praise of the prime minister and at one of these functions presented him a sword in recognition of his services to the country and its armed forces.

It was as a result of his persuasion that Bhutto agreed to be the Colonel-in-Chief of the Armoured Corps, an honour normally bestowed on senior army officers of general's rank. I gather that he had even tried to persuade him to don the uniform of the Colonel-in-Chief of the Armoured Corps, which he wanted Bhutto to wear at a military parade.

Zia-ul-Haq was selected to preside at a General Court Martial convened at Attock in 1973 to try a number of officers charged with a conspiracy to overthrow Bhutto's government. In view of the nature of the trial, the prime minister kept himself informed about its progress and, therefore, with Zia-ul-Haq's conduct of the proceedings. What he saw of Zia-ul-Haq during this lengthy trial confirmed him in his opinion that he was a trustworthy officer.

After his appointment as Chief of the Army Staff, there was no occasion to doubt his reliability or to suspect any personal ambition on his part. The people's movement against Bhutto's government in the spring of 1977 was a test of his loyalty and he had no difficulty in passing the test. During his tour of army formations he told the officers and men that their job was not to question the validity or justification of an order but to obey blindly the commands of the government.

It is said that at one place while addressing an army unit which was on martial law duties and some of whose personnel had fired on an unruly crowd, he had said that they had fired 20 rounds of ammunition but there was only one body. Where, he had asked, were the remaining 19 bodies? At another place, he congratulated a young officer who had ordered firing on a youth. He promoted him on the spot. Later, two months before he staged his coup, he, along with the Chiefs of Staff of the other two services, issued an unusual statement, reaffirming their loyalty to Bhutto. This statement was given wide publicity.

On the evening of July 4, Bhutto held a meeting with his senior advisers at which Zia-ul-Haq was also present. The political situation was discussed and Bhutto told them that he would be resuming the dialogue with the PNA leaders the following day and intended resolving the deadlock. The possibility of an accord being reached between the government and the PNA was not to his liking and Zia-ul-Haq decided to act without delay to obviate that risk.

The plan for a coup which had been ready for some time was immediately put into action. The operation was a simple affair and was localized to the capital. The details had already been worked out by the Corps Commander at Rawalpindi, Lt-Gen Faiz Ali Chishti, and the whole operation was completed before dawn of July 5, 1977.

The public received the news with mixed feelings but by and large Zia-ul-Haq’s action, particularly because of his promise to hold elections within 90 days, was accepted by the majority of the people as having been justified in the circumstances. The public had not acclaimed his assumption of power but because of his promise to hold elections within a stipulated period, had accepted it as a reasonable step in the peculiar conditions that had been created.

Bhutto, however, saw this as a treacherous act of one who owed everything to him. He did not mince his words when he saw Zia-ul-Haq in Murree on July 15 and subsequently on a number of occasions spoke of revenge. The Constitution of 1973 had laid down death penalty for the kind of action that Zia-ul-Haq had taken and Bhutto had reminded him of that. Mindful of his personal safety and that of his close associates, Zia-ul-Haq was put on guard and decided that he would take no risks.

Bhutto's show of strength at Lahore on August 8 led Zia-ul-Haq to feel that the PPP might well win the October '77 election and he did not relish the idea of handing over the government again to Bhutto. Even though Bhutto had assured him of forgiveness for the action that he had taken on July 5, he could not risk the possibility of such a thing happening and, therefore, decided not to take any chances.

After this, Bhutto and the PPP made a series of mistakes. Bhutto was certain to the end that he could not be hanged and a sentence of imprisonment did not worry him too much, because a person of his standing could not, he felt, be kept locked up for very long. He therefore, decided to adopt a posture of defiance and to make political capital out of the trial. The PPP leadership, not accustomed to a mass struggle, wrongly assessed the public mood and believed that people would rise to save their leader. They too were firmly of the view that no court could dare sentence him to death and even if it did, Zia-ul-Haq could not carry out the sentence.

By virtue of being the chairman of the Islamic summit, Bhutto wielded considerable influence in the Muslim world and had powerful friends amongst the richest Muslim heads of state. The Shah of Iran, the King of Saudi Arabia, Colonel Moammer Qadhafi of Libya and the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi were four of Pakistan's important bankers and each one of them was on the best of personal terms with Bhutto. How could Zia-ul-Haq disregard their advice? Apart from these four aid-giving countries, Bhutto had good equations with the governments of the Soviet Union, China and all the important western countries. It was a formidable array of sovereigns, presidents and prime ministers and the PPP can be forgiven for making a massive miscalculation.

When the trial started in the Lahore High Court, Bhutto objected to the Chief Justice, Maulvi Mushtaq Hussain, being on the bench which was to try him, on the grounds that Mushtaq Hussain had been superseded twice under his orders and could not, therefore, be expected to be impartial. This objection was over-ruled and from then on Bhutto's attitude towards the court was one of defiance and often of contempt. The case in the Lahore High Court lasted about seven months. The court held Bhutto guilty and sentenced him to death.

When Bhutto appealed to the Supreme Court against the verdict of the Lahore High Court, a bench of seven judges with the Chief Justice was set up. Justice Yaqub Ali had been replaced by Sheikh Anwar-ul-Haq as Chief Justice on September 23, 1977. This happened immediately following the admittance by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Yaqub Ali on September 20, of a writ field by Mrs Nusrat Bhutto, challenging Bhutto's detention under martial law. The Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case and had ordered that Bhutto and a number of other PPP accused be brought to Sihala police rest house near Rawalpindi from Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore.

After Justice Yaqub Ali's removal, Bhutto objected to the inclusion of the new Chief Justice, Sheikh Anwar-ul-Haq, as a member of the Bench on the grounds that by accepting the office of acting president during the absence of Zia-ul-Haq from the country, he had compromised his impartial status. Bhutto also stated that the Chief Justice in his public statements had been critical of his government in the recent past.

This objection was overruled and the trial started by a full bench of the Supreme Court comprising all the nine judges at Rawalpindi on May 20, 1978. Throughout the trial, Bhutto's attitude was more cooperative than it had been at Lahore. He still appeared to believe that political considerations and pressure from foreign governments would save his life. At the same time, he hoped that the Supreme Court's decision would be in his favour.

The trial ended in January, 1979 and by a majority decision of 4 against 3, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the judgment of the Lahore High Court. The judgment of the Supreme Court was made public on February 6, 1979. Bhutto was given a week to file a review petition, the final decision on which was made known on March 24, 1979 and the decision given earlier was confirmed. It was now up to Zia-ul-Haq to grant a reprieve. During the next few days a large number of mercy appeals were made to Zia-ul-Haq, amongst them many by foreign governments.

Zia-ul-Haq's answer was made known to the people of Pakistan through the 11 a.m. radio news on April 4, 1979, after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been buried at his ancestral graveyard at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in Larkana district. He had been hanged in Rawalpindi district prison early that morning. Thus ended a turbulent career. We are too close to the times in which Bhutto lived, to assess accurately the impact of his life and death on the future of Pakistan. It will be some time before a realistic assessment could be made.

Zia-ul-Haq's decision to hang Bhutto, however, raises some important issues. On July 15, 1977, when asked by Mufti Mahmood whether he intended to try Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq had categorically stated that he had no intention of doing so. On September 3, 1977, however, Bhutto was arrested for complicity in Nawab Ahmad Khan's murder. He was released on September 16, on bail granted by the Lahore High Court and re-arrested on September 17, on Zia-ul-Haq's orders. In addition to the Nawab Ahmad Khan murder case, 25 other cases were prepared against him, material for which had been collected by the martial law authorities.

It appears that the decision to proceed against Bhutto was taken in the six weeks between July 15 and the end of August. Some of the happenings during this period which led Zia-ul-Haq to change his mind were: the reception that Bhutto received on arrival at Lahore in August; the advice of the junta whose members were not prepared to take the risk of Bhutto winning the election; the pleadings of some PNA leaders that Bhutto should be tried and the elections postponed; the provisions of the 1973 Constitution which laid down death penalty for the abrogation of the Constitution and finally Zia-ul-Haq's inbred distrust of politicians.

These factors, besides the normal influence of unbridled power, the effects of which increased with every day that passed, led Zia-ul-Haq to decide on Bhutto's trial and the postponement of the elections. The decision to hang him was the natural consequence of this background. What had happened between September, 1977 and April, 1979 strengthened Zia-ul-Haq's resolve to remove from the scene the one man, who he knew, would not pardon him for what he had done on the early morning of July 5, 1977.

There is little doubt that Zia-ul-Haq's decision was motivated by political considerations and was not the action of an impartial head of state. He was on record during the trial as having said that he would hang Bhutto and when one of the nine judges on the bench completed his tenure during the course of the trial, he was not given an extension to complete the hearing of undoubtedly the most important case of Pakistan's judicial history. When the illness of another judge had reduced the Bench to 7 and a verdict of 4 in favour of upholding the Lahore High Court decision and 3 against was given, Zia-ul-Haq confirmed the sentence.

It could be argued that this action was justified on technical grounds. However, the ultimate penalty in a case when the death sentence had been upheld by so narrow a difference of view between the judges, after the Bench of nine had been reduced to seven, smacked of a biased mind rather than that of an impartial referee. Had the original Bench of nine judges been maintained, the verdict could well have been 5-4 in Bhutto's favour. Moreover, when there was so much talk of bringing in Islamic laws, care was taken not to amend the Criminal Penal Code to allow the next of kin in a murder case, to forgive the accused on receipt of blood money if he chose to do so - an action which is permitted in Islam.

There is of course the larger issue of the right of a military dictator, who according to his own solemn undertaking, had assumed control for an interim period, pending the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people, to hang an elected prime minister of the country. It was also odd that a Chief of the Army Staff , himself an Armoured Corps officer, should have hanged the Colonel-in-Chief of the Armoured Corp.

Moreover, it was unprecedented that in spite of the appeals of almost every head of state of a Muslim country, he should have hanged the current chairman of the Islamic Conference. There must obviously have been some overriding compulsion that led him to take this unprecedented step. It could only be his determination to hang on to power and to remove from his path any impediment, that could create difficulties for him or endanger his position in the future.




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