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Why Bhutto’s Judicial Murder Was A Turning Point In Pakistan’s History

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Born on January 5, 1928, Bhutto spent his last birthday – his 51st – in the death cell of Rawalpindi jail. His bearing and his demeanour in the last appalling months were noble. He would not be beaten by adverse circumstances, would not beg, or plead. In 1977 he had been ousted by the military and for two years he was tried in the courts for a trumped up murder charge and sentenced to death. On April 3, a team of four officers entered Rawalpindi Jail to end a chapter in Pakistan’s history. As narrated by Col Rafiuddin in his book Bhutto Kay Aakhri 323 Din (The last 323 days of Bhutto), ‘he was quite calm, relaxed, and had a smile on his face.’

Gen Zia who has assumed power in a coup on July 5, 1977 knew that Bhutto was way too popular and was a threat to his rule. Bhutto was not a saint or free of flaws. But his sham trial exposed the judicial system as well as the nature of Pakistan’s pretorian state. On April 4, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, twice elected prime minister of the country, was hanged. The uneven fight between democracy and dictatorship became a permanent feature of the complex and controversial power paradigm of Pakistan at that point. Hanging was not enough. A narrative of Bhutto being anti-state was carefully crafted by the military regime. Rafi recalls Bhutto once asking, “What is this drama that is being staged?” He was speechless.

New York Times reported: the decision to hang Mr. Bhutto was made by General Zia despite a flood of petitions for executive clemency from dozens of world leaders, including President Carter, Leonid I. Brezhnev, Hua Guofeng and Pope John Paul II. As the nation waited tensely for a presidential decision on the fate of Bhutto, a security force raided three houses owned by the former Prime Minister and seized official papers. A close aide to General Zia privately told several American correspondents that the President first turned against the former Prime Minister when shown a list of his (Bhutto’s) political opponents. The aide said that some names on the list had been marked, in Bhutto’s own hand, for “elimination.”

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The narrative was further reinforced in an official statement issued by the police in Sindh Province. The officers who raided Bhutto’s homes in Karachi, his home town of Larkana and the village of Naundero had recovered “secret documents of an extremely sensitive nature pertaining to state security, including defense and foreign affairs.”

Inderjit Badhwar writes: “Bhutto – aristocrat, populist, rabble-rouser, con man, patriot, tyrant – became in the end a pathetic, suffering human figure railing against heavy-handed and cruel injustices heaped by a totalitarian regime.” And even his supplications for treatment within a proper medical clinic were underlined by a macabre humour: “I am not asking to go abroad,” he wrote. “I want to be shifted to a hospital in my own country. The Army can surround the hospital with tanks, were his witty remarks.

The Guardian, reported the day after Bhutto’s hanging that the secrecy of execution symbolized prevailing and deepening paranoid in top military circles. No doubt, the execution was carried out in a secret military operation (fearing public backlash) and the only people to be told other than the executioners were Bhutto, his wife and daughter. The hangman Tarah Masih was flown to Rawalpindi in a private plane with a simple mission: to hang Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Shortly after 4 a.m. an unscheduled flight took off from nearby Chaklala airbase, apparently carrying Bhutto’s body to his home village of Ghari Bhutto, near the town Larnaka. A heavy concentration of troops was reported at both the village and at the town, and roadblocks had been set up. Throughout Bhutto’s long trial and subsequent hanging, Pakistan remained in the grip of tension and rumour.

There was no dearth of Bhutto devotees all over Pakistan. Hearing about his assassination, many immolated themselves protesting against this political injustice. One of the first to die from burn injuries was Pervaiz Yaqoob from Gujranwala. Five others from different parts of the country followed him to the grave. Begum Naseem, a woman from Lahore, also tried to set fire to herself outside the Mochi Gate in Lahore, but was saved. While in jail, his previously waning popularity had thus soared to sky high. People desperately wanted him back.

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Millions of Pakistanis mourned the assassination of Bhutto. For his followers, he gave Pakistan confidence and respectability. After the 1971 war and break up of the country, Bhutto enabled Pakistan to recover, restoring the nation’s morale in perilous times after 1971 split. “y Qoum Baney ge…y Qoum Azeem Qoum Baney ge…Bhutto ek nahi do hein; ek mein or dusre aap” – his speeches penetrated into hearts and minds of the masses especially the majority i.e. the poor. Since he promised to break the cabals of landowners and bureaucrats who had ruled under dictatorship, no doubt, they were unhappy with Bhutto.

It is worthwhile to revisit Bhutto’s profound remarks: “More than my life is at stake. Make no mistake about it. The future of Pakistan is at stake…” –these words still haunt Pakistan -“there will be turmoil and turbulence, conflict and conflagration,” predicted Bhutto in September 1978 and the succeeding years proved him right. Bhutto had foresighted the distorted trajectory the country was going to be plunged in. Many of the problems that Pakistan faces today, including Islamic militancy, weak civilian institutions, and perpetual violence against dissenters, minorities, are a direct product of the policies of Zia-ul-Haq.

History would describe that hanging as a judicial murder. No surprise that PPP has had turbulent relations with the judiciary. In 2011, the then Pakistani cabinet supported moves to re-examine the death sentence meted out to former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. The Court has avoided the long-due task of correcting this wrong.

Bhutto perhaps had rightly lamented in a final note to the jail superintendent: “As the author of the Constitution of 1973 I am melancholy over its final burial…”

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