Closing a dark chapter

By Editorial Board
December 07, 2023

When Justice Qazi Faez Isa became the chief justice of Pakistan in September this year, legal experts had said that his first task would be to restore the image and credibility of a tarnished superior judiciary. The first live proceedings of the Supreme Court pointed to how CJ Isa did indeed manage to take the first step towards this aim.

Now, according to some reports, the Supreme Court may be set to take up a presidential reference next week to revisit the murder case judgment of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The judicial murder of Bhutto has remained an ugly and unforgettable blot on Pakistan’s judiciary ever since the PPP founder was executed in 1979 during the martial law imposed by General Ziaul Haq, following an unfair and farcical trial.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Pakistan Peoples Party and former primer minister speaks with the media. — AFP/File

This is something several judges have also acknowledged. The Bhuttos have been waiting for justice for over four decades now and, while the verdict will not wash away the darkness that surrounded one of Pakistan’s most unfortunate judicial decisions, closing this case finally by acknowledging the wrong done could give some closure to the family and the scores of followers of the PPP’s founder. For the Bhuttos, politics has been a dangerous landscape.

Out of the four children of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, only one is alive – the rest having been assassinated at different times in history. The family’s search for justice has also been riddled with several challenges. In 2011, a presidential reference under Article 186 of the constitution was sent to the SC by the then president Asif Ali Zardari to seek the top court’s opinion on revisiting the Bhutto trial. After 12 years, the apex court is most likely to finally take up this reference.

Historians, journalists, lawyers and even judges have maintained over the decades that Bhutto’s trial was a travesty of justice and revisiting the case would be the first step to some sense of necessary righting of history. If the Bhutto reference does indeed find place in the Supreme Court, this would be another good start to the CJP’s closely monitored innings. The PPP has been demanding the verdict be revisited for decades, but till now no one in the apex court has tried to right the wrongs of the country’s judicial past.

Bhutto’s political career took a dramatic turn when he was ousted in a military coup led by Gen Zia. Subsequently, Bhutto was arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, leading to a trial that has since been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and fairness. The trial process was marred by allegations of political interference, witness tampering, and a rushed verdict, raising serious doubts about the legitimacy of the judicial proceedings.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution not only silenced a prominent political figure but also left a lasting impact on Pakistan’s political landscape. It also marked a setback for the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people, setting a precedent for the manipulation of judicial processes for political gains. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder stands as a dark chapter in Pakistan’s history, underscoring the vulnerability of democratic institutions when subjected to political manipulation and undemocratic intervention.

The lack of due process and the apparent disregard for the principles of justice in Bhutto’s trial continue to raise questions about the integrity of the Pakistani judicial system. Acknowledging and addressing this historical injustice is crucial to restore the judiciary’s exalted position as the upholder and wielder of justice. The record needs to be set straight officially. They say justice delayed is justice denied; the injustice of Bhutto’s execution cannot be reversed but at least the injustice itself being recorded is something that can be done – finally.