The Trial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto


After declaring Martial Law in the country on the 5th of July 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq addressed a press conference on the 14th of the same month and claimed: “We have no intentions of any witch-hunting.… The courts are still functioning and we have not stopped anyone going to the courts to take the politicians to task. Then why do they want me or the Military or the armed forces to hang a few politicians? Why should I? Isn’t it as much of a concern of the public as it is mine? It should be done by them, if it is to be done.”


Who would know at that time that the General was working on a fixed agenda. The argument that the fear of Bhutto’s return to power had forced Zia-ul-Haq to take this extreme action becomes obsolete if a retrospective analysis is made of the chain of events taking place before the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Elimination of the deposed Prime Minister and the country’s most popular leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was of utmost importance to the military junta and more importantly Zia ul Haq himself.


An alive Bhutto was too dangerous. No chances could be taken. His strong roots in the people of Pakistan , his ability to turn foes into friends, his commanding stature in international politics made him a formidable figure in the complex polity of Pakistan . He was too strong to be tackled politically. The generals knew that Zulfikar AliBhutto could not be defeated politically. His presence would be of constant threat for them.


For the accomplishment of this task, the General knew that the support of the judiciary was crucial. Capital punishment through the military courts against him would raise protests of injustice the world over and could potentially backfire. Therefore, on the assumption of power, he cleverly inducted the chief justices of all provincial High Courts as Acting Governors of their provinces.


Maulvi Mushtaq Hussein, who nursed an animosity against Bhutto, was appointed as the Acting Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court. A vilification campaign against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ensued. Old files were re-opened and searches were made to find out something that would nail down the popular leader. The “re-filed case shortly after the coup” by Ahmed Raza Qasuri, (Pakistan- A Modern History by Ian Talbot) came in handy for the dictator. Although a High Court Inquiry under Justice Shafi-ur-Rahman had exonerated the former Prime Minister in this case, but Zia was not to be deterred.


On the 3rd of September, 1977, the deposed Prime minister was arrested. He was charged with conspiracy to murder Nawab Mohammed Ahmed Qasuri , the father of a party politician Ahmad Raza Qasuri, the alleged target in an assault on his car on 11 November 1974. But much to the chagrin of the General, ten days later Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was granted bail by Justice K.M.A. Samdani of the Lahore High Court, as the case did not hold any legal ground. The General realized that from now on “he would also have to take on the task of meeting out justice to his hated enemy by bringing him up for murder in his own reliable martial law court”. At the same time “Zulfi had been warned, upon his release from prison on 13 September that an order for his detention under some preventive law or martial law was being prepared. He feared that Zia had now decided to perpetuate himself, and thought that if elections were postponed, there would be disastrous consequences for the country.” (Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert).


Within three days Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s bail was cancelled. In the middle of the night of 16th September, army commandos “climbed like black cats over the walls of Al-Murtaza, knocking out all the guards before they could raise a cry, hammering their rifle butts at the front door till almost flew off its heavy hinges.” (Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert) This time he was arrested, for never to be released again, on the same charges and sent to the Sukkur Jail.


The Justice who granted him bail was transferred back to the Sindh High Court and the courageously independent Chief Justice of Pakistan Yaqub Ali Khan was forced to retire by the 22nd of the same month. Only three days before his forced retirement, he had admitted Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan challenging the constitutionality of her husband’s detention.


Sheikh Anwar-ul-Haq, who had no legal training and had entered the judicial service by its backdoor as an administrator, but had the distinction of being a friend of the General and hailed from the same hometown of Jullunder in East Punjab, was appointed as the chief justice of Pakistan on the 23rdof September. At this stage, Zia knew that any loophole could have jeopardized his grand scheme of imparting justice to his enemy.


The trial known as the Conspiracy to Murder against the deposed Prime Minister began on the 24th of October. His daughter, the twice elected Prime Minister Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, writes in her autobiography: “The case against my father rested primarily on the confession of Masood Mahmood, the Director General of the Federal Security Force. Masood Mahmood was one of the public servants who was arrested soon after the coup and who we had been told was tortured to give false evidence against my father. After almost two months of detention by the military, Masood Mahmood had decided to become an ‘approver’, a witness who claims to be an accomplice in a crime and is pardoned on the promise that he will tell the ‘truth’ about the other participants. Now Masood Mahmood was claiming that my father ordered him to murder the politician Kasuri… There were no eye-witnesses to the attack.” So much so that the “FSF guns, which the ‘confessing accused’ claimed to have used in the murder attempt did not match the empty cartridges found at the scene”. (Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto)


Expecting a fair trial from a person like Maulvi Mushtaq was very much unlikely. The whole nation witnessed in disgust how the judicial process was blatantly transgressed and the principles of justice and impartiality were trampled upon. The “Acting Chief Justice Maulvi Mushtaq never so much as attempted to suppress or hide his personal animus. It never occurred to him that he should refuse himself from the trial.” (Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert).


“The witnesses were briefed on what they should say” and favorable answers were deliberately whittled down. “At the end of the trial, not one of the objections raised or the contradictions in the evidence pointed out by the defense appeared in the record 706 pages of testimony”. (Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto)


As expected, Maulvi Mushtaq and his full bench found Zulfikar Ali Bhutto guilty of murder and sentenced him to death on March 18, 1978.


An appeal against the Lahore High Court’s decision was filed in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bench consisted of nine Justices, when the case started. It was hoped that five of them would favor the reversal of the case. “Some of the judges on the bench had leanings towards the General, still the old guards over weighted their more realistic colleagues.” (Benazir Bhutto by Mohammed Ali Sheikh ). But as the case prolonged Justice Qaiser Khan retired and Justice Wahiduddin got so sick, that he could no longer remain on the bench. The expected majority was reduced to minority and the decision taken by the Lahore High Court was upheld by the Supreme Court by a margin of 4 to 3 in February 1979. The three justices who voted for Bhutto’s acquittal were Justice Dorab Patel of Balochistan, Justice Safder Shah of NWFP, and Justice Mohammed Halim of Sindh as they could not find any direct evidence for the conspiracy to murder.


While Justice Anwar-ul-Haq in his eight-hundred pages dismissed all the errors and illegalities in the Lahore High Court’s trial as totally irrelevant to the verdict and confirmed the death sentence. The nation was dumbfounded.


Zia-ul-Haq who was already calling the former President-Prime Minister a murderer while the case was still under trial, dismissed hundreds of clemency appeals from all the heads of the country and ordered for Bhutto’s execution. Hoping that with his death, would die the movement that headed. Hoping that his death would extinguish the light he lit in the minds of the downtrodden. The light to equality, fraternity and peoples’ power.


Even after thirty years people in thousands throng to the place where he is buried- in the hope that there would be a better tomorrow for him and for his children. The reason is very simple: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto empowered the people!


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