LAHORE - The Pakistan People’s Party is observing today the 35th death anniversary of its founding chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose execution on this day in 1979 the party insists was a ‘judicial murder’. The judiciary doesn’t react to the repeated assertions, knowing well their implications for the status of the judges of the Lahore High Court and the Supreme Court who had convicted Mr Bhutto and the co-accused.
The judicial murder rhetoric has been going on for a long time. And even a few days ago, the Sindh Assembly had passed a resolution, condemning judicial murder of Mr Bhutto and paid him tributes for his services to the country.
Ostensibly, such an utterance should be taken as contempt of court. However, if those who supported the resolution are right, then those impliedly alluded to as murderers should be brought to justice, no matter who and how many they are. Newspapers files show that in April, 2008, the Sindh Assembly had called upon the federal government to declare the death of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a judicial murder and sought an inquiry by the United Nations into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
During the PPP’s tenure, president Asif Ali Zardari had sent a presidential reference to the Supreme Court to have the controversy resolved for all times to come. However, after a few hearings which got huge media coverage, the matter was shelved, with little hope that flooded with a large number of petitions on a variety of subjects every day the apex court would be able to take it up any time soon.
The result is that the PPP continues to capitalise on Mr Bhutto’s execution, and in the absence of a stay order the judiciary can’t stop anyone from using the controversial term for the hanging of the man who remained the civilian chief martial law administrator, president as well as prime minister of the country.
And unless the court passed some verdict on the subject, the judges of the Supreme Court and the Lahore High Court who had awarded capital punishment would remain in the ‘dock’.
The judiciary would be doing well by taking up this case at the earliest possible and let the nation know whether the trial had been conducted impartially and the conviction was justified. In case the apex court doesn’t, any living judge associated with the case or his relatives should formally approach the judiciary to have the controversy resolved.
For starters, it was on November 11, 1974, that Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan, the father of Mr Ahmed Raza Kasuri (now counsel to Gen Pervez Musharraf) was killed in gunfire when he was returning home after attending a marriage ceremony in Shadman Colony, Lahore. The real target, it is alleged, was Ahmed Raza who was a bitter critic of Mr Bhutto.
The first information report (FIR) was registered with the Ichhra police station. Although the assailants were unknown, Ahmed Raza Kasuri named Mr Bhutto as the man behind the plot.
A judicial investigation cleared Mr Bhutto of the charge, after which the matter went into the background.
However, the situation changed after the overthrow of the PPP government by Gen Ziaul Haq on July 5, 1977. The case against Mr Bhutto was revived. Many say that Gen Zia knew that if Mr Bhutto survived, he wouldn’t spare him for toppling him.
The murder trial started on October 24, 1977. On March 18, 1978, Mr Bhutto was sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court. The bench, headed by Chief Justice Maulvi Mushtaq Hussain, found Mr Bhutto guilty of orchestrating Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Kasuri’s murder.
An appeal was filed with the Supreme Court where a seven-judge bench (presided over by Chief Justice Sheikh Anwarul Haq) upheld the LHC judgment by a 4-3 vote.
A review petition was also dismissed and Mr Bhutto was finally executed on April 4, 1979.
After decades of controversy about the legality of the trial, Mr Zardari, as president, sent a reference to the Supreme Court under Article 186 of the Constitution.
The Article reads: “(1) 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. (2) The Supreme Court shall consider a question so referred and report its opinion on the question to the president.”
According to a media report, during the hearing of the reference Justice (retired) Tariq Mehmood who was assisting the Supreme Court in the presidential reference conceded that Lahore High Court chief justice Maulvi Mushtaq Hussain, who headed the bench which handed down the controversial death sentence to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had harboured bias against the former prime minister. He cited reasons for that.
“What I believe,” Justice Mehmood said, “miscarriage of justice was done when Mr Bhutto was awarded capital punishment.”
Dr Babar Awan, who represented president Zardari said Mr Bhutto had died in custody much before he was hanged and alleged that it was a case of custodial assassination. He regretted that the high court had kept pending an application of Mr Bhutto in which he expressed apprehensions of an unfair trial.
Mr Awan also read out different applications and letters written by Mr Bhutto like that of Oct 5, 1977, challenging the maintainability of the trial; another on the same date highlighting bias of Justice Maulvi Mushtaq; Nov 5, 1977, saying he did not expect a fair trial; Feb 25, 1978, letter to the then Punjab governor requesting him to transfer the case to another bench.
Then attorney general Maulvi Anwarul Haq said Mr Bhutto was hanged in haste and that the Supreme Court needs to re-examine his murder trial.
To set the record right for posterity, the judiciary is duty-bound to decide the pending reference without further delay.