A three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has admitted for hearing the reference sent by President Asif Ali Zardari under Article 186 of the Constitution to reopen the verdict that led to the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on April 4, 1979. The Chief Justice remarked that it was a case of historic significance, for which a larger bench would be constituted. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was an internationally known figure, the Chief Justice said, and if need be the court would hear the case night and day. To expedite the proceedings, court assistants would be hired from the provinces and the federation.
An interesting exchange ensued when Babar Awan presented himself before the court and requested that he be allowed to appear in the reference. The Chief Justice responded that he could not be allowed to argue while remaining the federal law minister. “A minister had appeared in the case during the dictatorship,” the Chief Justice reminded Babar Awan. “Illegal traditions will not be allowed to continue in a democracy.” The reference was to the appearance in the Bhutto case of Sharifuddin Pirzada, a renowned (some say notorious) constitutional expert and at the time a minister in General Ziaul Haq’s military regime. Mr Pirzada is well known for providing legitimacy to every military dictator in Pakistan’s history by twisting the provisions of the constitution. Babar Awan was advised by the court to submit his resignation from his ministry to the proper authorities along with giving up any other office he may be holding, renew his licence through the Pakistan Bar Council and then present himself as counsel. While the court adjourned the hearing, Mr Awan revealed that his resignation had already been submitted to the prime minister and onward to the Acting President Chairman Senate Farooq Naek, who had accepted it. President Zardari is currently out of the country.
Babar Awan has moved the Pakistan Bar Council for the renewal of his licence. In his usual flamboyant rhetorical style, the ex-law minister stated that even if he had been the prime minister, he would have given up the office to appear as counsel in this case. The sacrifice of his ministry, Awan asserted, was nothing in comparison with the sacrifices of people who gave their lives for a cause.
The reference centres round questions of law rather than fact, since this is, in the view of legal experts, the purview of a presidential reference to the Supreme Court under Article 186. General Ziaul Haq’s military coup overthrew Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government on July 5, 1977 in the aftermath of a countrywide agitation on allegations that his government had massively rigged the 1977 general elections. Ironically, General Zia struck just when the Bhutto government and the opposition alliance the PNA had arrived at a settlement that envisaged fresh elections. The real motivation that triggered the coup, insiders reveal, was the issue of Balochistan, where an insurgency had been raging since 1973. Whereas Bhutto agreed in principle to withdraw the army from active operations in Balochistan and promised the release of prisoners and compensation to the victims of the army’s actions, demands that formed the core of the Baloch resistance’s platform and that were taken up by the PNA in negotiations with Mr Bhutto, for General Zia and the military this was unacceptable. Ironically, when Bhutto was released after a few months of incarceration by General Zia, things took a strange twist again. Bhutto toured the country and his wild reception made the general nervous enough to imprison him once more and start proceedings in the murder case of Nawab Mohammad Khan, the father of an erstwhile PPP MNA, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, who had fallen out with Bhutto. That murder case is the one in which Bhutto was convicted by the Lahore High Court. The Lahore High Court’s proceedings were an object lesson in judicial bias. Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court Maulvi Mushtaq openly showed his hostility to the defendant in court. The verdict of conviction therefore seemed a pre-destined outcome.
In appeal to the Supreme Court, the original bench of nine Supreme Court judges was reduced by the retirement of one judge and the illness of another to seven. That bench gave a split verdict 4-3 upholding the conviction. Legal experts then (and now) were of the view that such a split decision should not have been relied upon to hang a former prime minister, especially when the judicial proceedings did not meet the criteria of due process. Besides, even if the conspiracy to murder Ahmed Raza Kasuri (whose father was killed instead) could be laid at Bhutto’s door, the ultimate penalty did not lie in law, precedent, or jurisprudence, taking into account the status of the defendant and the bias floating on the surface of his trial, conviction and the appeals process.
Whether Bhutto was guilty or not of the conspiracy ascribed to him (reliance was placed on the evidence of approvers who agreed to cooperate with the prosecution in return for being let off), the murder trial was simply a judicial expedient to kill the man who had dared to touch the private properties of the capitalist and feudal classes. Bhutto was never forgiven for that by these interests or the establishment, who all joined hands to get rid of him physically. Bhutto’s failure to consistently see through the reforms he initiated of nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy and redistributing land to the peasantry was reflected in the fact that in later years he abandoned his natural constituency, the workers and peasants, and embraced instead the very classes whose interests he had attacked earlier. Bhutto may have opened the doors of his party (c. 1975) to the feudals and made his ‘peace’ with the bourgeoisie, but these classes wreaked a terrible revenge on him.
The property relations Bhutto sought to overturn reasserted themselves with a vengeance once he was gone. But what his physical death could not obliterate was the people’s memory of the promise of a new dawn in which injustice and exploitation would become things of the past. Bhutto may have faltered halfway in the revolutionary transformation of Pakistani society and paid a terrible price for it, but this only serves to underline the ruthless nature of class struggle and class property relations.