Why Zia hanged Bhutto

By executing Bhutto Zia got to save his neck and rule the country for 11 years

In early 1973, just before the National Assembly adopted the Constitution, 14 air force and 21 army officers were arrested, tried and convicted on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the elected government. The court martial was presided over by Maj Gen Ziaul Haq.

Four years later, as army chief the same general, not only overthrew the government on July 5, 1977, but also later hanged the elected prime minister. Four decades later, the sentence is still considered a “judicial murder.” Even some of those who wanted to see Zulfikar Ali Bhutto go to the gallows on April 4, 1979, acknowledge the point. All the accused officers except one were awarded prison sentences (up to life) and barred from promotion.

Brian Cloughley, author of War, Coups and Terror, Pakistan’s Army in Years of Turmoil, has written about the incident. He is also the author of another book, A History of Pakistan Army.

The case may have led to induction of Article VI in the Constitution which authorised the Parliament to pass laws for the punishment of those found guilty of treason.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after taking oath as country’s first Civilian Martial Law Administrator in the absence of any constitution or constitutional authority, brought some drastic changes in the army and sacked several generals including General Yahya Khan, the then army chief.

Within no time he had also replaced Gen Gul Hassan, his own appointment to the office, and replaced him with Gen Tikka Khan. When Khan retired he was succeeded by General Ziaul Haq, who superseded at least six generals.

Bhutto might have reasoned that the General who had punished the officers involved in the 1973 conspiracy would remain loyal to the government. Some of those close to Bhutto warned him that anybody who sought to be too close to the prime minister (as Zia did) could be dangerous.

One could disagree with Bhutto on many of his policies over his four-year term but there’s no denying that he was the most popular politician in Pakistan at that time and had the capacity to challenge the Establishment.

His decisions and actions within weeks and months after he took power in December 1971 speak volumes about the man.

His actions could be the reasons why some army and air force officers made an attempt to overthrow his government. However, the attempt was foiled by the armed forces. The then air chief was harsh in punishing those belonged to the Air Force.

The conspiracy alerted Bhutto and led to the inclusion of Article VI, in the Constitution. Gen Zia came close to Bhutto and finally succeeded in getting the top slot in the army.

Zia, for his part, realized that his boss who had inducted Article VI in the Constitution, could also enforce the punishment. That was one of the reasons he signed his death warrant on April 3, 1979, leading to the hanging of ZAB.

Earlier, Zia had wanted to test Bhutto’s popularity after taking over power on July 5, 1977. He had announced that general elections would be held within 90 days under Operation Fairplay. However, it soon became apparent that Zia had miscalculated the strength of the PNA, which soon got divided over joining the military government. He might not have hanged Bhutto had the opposition stood any chance of winning the polls under his command.

When Bhutto was released and launched his campaign the writing on the wall was clear, both for Zia and the PNA. He was re-arrested and the campaign leadership fell to his wife, Begum Nusrat Bhutto. To the utter surprise of Zia, she too drew huge crowds.

Bhutto had hinted that if he returned to power he would punish those who had violated the Constitution, a reference to Article VI.

Veteran journalist Mujeebur Rehman Shami, whose weekly Zindagi was banned by Bhutto during his government (Shami was put in jail) once told me that he was part of a group of the right-wing writers and journalists who advised Zia to postpone the October 1977 elections as they apprehended a landslide victory for the PPP.

“Yes, it is true,” he told me in Lahore in the presence of some other colleagues while confirming my remarks in this regard in a talk show. “You were right but let me tell you the whole story,” he said. He said the group had included Altaf Hassan Qureshi of Urdu Digest, late Muhammad Salahuddin of weekly Takbeer and daily Jasarat, late Mustafa Sadiq and had called on Zia with the consent of late Majeed Nizami of Nawa-e-Waqt about a week before the elections were due. They had met him in Lahore and requested him to postpone the elections.

He went on to say, “Begum Bhutto was holding a public meeting in Lahore that day. Zia asked us about the public opinion. We told him that the public opinion favoured the PPP and Bhutto. But we assured him that if he postponed the elections we would change the opinion in his favour.”

Bhutto was also popular in the army, particularly among junior officers because of his loud nationalism and launching of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme after India conducted the first nuclear test.

Thus, when General Zia imposed martial law, he immediately announced elections, saying that the army would return to the barracks after handing over power to the elected government. His action was also in clear violation of the Supreme Court judgment in Asma Jillani case, which had declared martial law unconstitutional.

The intelligence reports suggested a PPP victory by a landslide and Bhutto’s return to power. Zia used the right wing press and leaders of the defunct National Awami Party, who were put behind bars by Bhutto.

The slogan, pehlay ehtisab, phir intikhab, (accountability first, then elections) had the support of veteran leaders like late Khan Abdul Wali Khan.

The role of the judiciary in rescuing unconstitutional actions of de facto rulers was consistent from 1958 to 2002. It was only in November 2007, that an emergency declaration by the president was neither endorsed by the Parliament nor upheld by the judiciary.

Gen Ziaul Haq knew that Bhutto was a man of strong nerves. One of Bhutto’s close aides, late Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi told me in one of his interviews to me a few weeks before his death that he had tried his best to save Bhutto. “I met Gen Zia in the presence of Gen KM Arif and almost begged him to spare Bhuttos. I had taken Begum Bhutto into confidence but not Bhutto. He assured me that all will be well in the end but I could read his face. He was a cunning man,” he said.

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist, recalled: “I secretly went to Turkey and met its president in a bid to save Bhutto I believed the Islamic world needed someone like him. He made a call to Zia in my presence. He told me that although Zia had assured him, he believed that Zia would not spare him.” Zia knew that if he hanged Bhutto, no one could challenge him. He crushed the PPP and imposed a censorship on the press.

He was also confident that over time PPP’s roots would grow week.

When Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, returned after four years of exile on April 10, 1986, and over half million people received her with Jiay Bhutto slogans, it was a surprise for him.

Zia hanged Bhutto to save his neck. He got to rule the country for 11 years before he was assassinated on August 17, 1988. Bhutto was vindicated when, years later, late Prof Ghafoor Ahmad of Jamaat-i-Islami said, “It was a judicial murder. We should not have supported his hanging.”

Today, there is a broad consensus in Pakistan that his death was a judicial murder and that General Ziaul Haq was a usurper.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO

Why Zia hanged Bhutto