The 4th of April is marked as one of the darkest days in the political calendar of Pakistan. This was the day when the first ever directly elected prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979. His body was silently buried by the then military regime headed by General Ziaul Haq.
Those who thought that Bhutto’s political legacy would end with his death have been proved wrong by history. Even Bhutto’s detractors admit today that his was a judicial murder, the results of a controversial trial with split verdict. In recent years, the PPP has been demanding that the judicial reference on the Bhutto case which is pending with the Supreme Court of Pakistan be immediately heard so as to ‘correct the course of history’.
For this purpose, in 2011, the PPP government sent a judicial reference to the Supreme Court to reopen the Bhutto case. Unfortunately, the reference seems to have been consigned to gather dust. It must be noted that this reference is only to correct history – since all the major players in the Bhutto case are either deceased or have become irrelevant in the last four decades. This can be the best ever tribute to the man who democratised Pakistan and tried to include the common citizen as a partner in this process.
Bhutto’s hanging is an unfortunate part of our history, executed despite appeals by world leaders and amid serious reservations by international jurists about the legal propriety of the death sentence. The death sentence was awarded by the Lahore High Court and subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in March 1979 in a split verdict. Justice Naseem Hasan Shah, a former judge of the bench of the Supreme Court, which upheld the death sentence had publicly acknowledged a few years back that the split verdict was given under pressure. Similarly, several other actors and proxies in that case also directly or indirectly hinted that Bhutto was maliciously dragged into that case and taken to the gallows. Over decades, this has led to a perception and later a legal premise that has resulted in the matter being referred to the Supreme Court, since in recent years we have seen judicial activism revive the institution of the judiciary.
The reference was sent under Article 186 of the constitution, which states: “If, at any time, the president considers that it is desirable to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court on any question of law which he considers of public importance, he may refer the question to the Supreme Court for consideration”. Clause 2 of the same article also states: “The Supreme Court shall consider a question so referred and report its opinion on the question to the president”.
Before formal processing to the Supreme Court by the law ministry, the reference was channelised through the federal cabinet of that time, which then authorised the then president Zardari to send the reference and thereby vindicate the position of the party’s founding chairman. This seemed an almost-impossible task even for Benazir Bhutto when she was prime minister. After her tragic assassination in December 2007, the PPP came into power again by forming a series of coalitions that gave the party power from Islamabad to all other provinces, except in Punjab.
Going back into history, we must remember that after his execution Bhutto’s body was flown secretly to his hometown Larkana and buried in their native graveyard at Garhi Khuda Bux. This was done without family members having been allowed to attend the funeral and last rites. However, within days, unending ripples of resistance were felt across the country, with its strongholds in rural Sindh, which led to an agitation named the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) led by the young and charismatic daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Benazir ended up reinventing the political legacy that he had left behind in the name of pro-people politics and their empowerment through democratisation. April 4 became an important event in the history of the PPP.
After Bhutto, his daughter was also a victim of the same inequality and indifference. Her two governments were dismissed in 1990 and 1997 on charges of corruption. Her cases with the Supreme Court never provided her any relief on her requested restoration. We can still see how structural imbalances add more grievances to smaller provinces, to which both Bhutto and his daughter belonged.
It has now been seven years since the filing of the reference with the Supreme Court. Why and how has the reference still not been heard? Initially, it was said that due to a change in the status of the lawyer, the reference was wait-listed and not prioritised. Later, even the PPP changed its lawyer and continued to request the much active then chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, to take up the case.
We hope Chief Justice Saqib Nisar will remove the dust from the reference and announce it has been reopened. We hope the honourable Supreme Court will take up an issue that has been awaited by the peoples of Pakistan.
The writer is an Islamabad-based anthropologist and analyst.