The Ghost of Bhutto

By Fay Willey with Loren Jenkins from the April 16, 1979, issue.

Thirty-two years ago, Gen. Zia ul Haq hanged then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Here’s this week’s flashback:

From the April 4‚ 2011‚ issue

The hangman’s fee was Rs. 25, about $2.50. On the scaffold, a magistrate read out the black-bordered execution order while prison officials bound the condemned man’s feet, placed a black hood over his head and put a manila rope around his neck. “Oh Lord, help me, I am innocent,” the prisoner whispered in his native Sindhi. A few moments later—at 2 a.m.—Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 51, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was hanged in a small, whitewashed courtyard of the Rawalpindi jail.

Bhutto’s execution ended a turbulent decade in which he had dominated Pakistani politics, and many Westerners were shocked by what seemed to be a savage act of political revenge. Many of Bhutto’s countrymen were horrified too, and the execution seemed to poison Pakistan’s future. In Islamabad, the capital, office workers wept at their desks. In Rawalpindi, Bhutto supporters defied martial law regulations imposed by President Zia ul Haq to shout antigovernment slogans and wave the banner of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). “Death to Zia and Zia’s children,” they cried, tearing their clothes. “Revenge!”
A court in Lahore convicted Bhutto a year ago of conspiring to kill a political opponent. To some Western legal experts, the evidence and trial procedures seemed flawed. But Zia refused to grant clemency, and Bhutto refused to beg for it, despite harsh treatment in a fetid little jail cell. Appeals for mercy poured in from world leaders as diverse as Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, China’s Chairman Hua Guofeng, and Pope John Paul II.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter made the last of his several clemency appeals to Zia shortly before Bhutto’s death. Later, U.S. spokesmen deplored the execution, which came at a time when Pakistani nuclear policy had already damaged relations between the two countries. The CIA learned recently that Pakistan is building a plant to produce weapons-grade uranium, presumably to develop an atomic bomb. As a result, the U.S. cut off most of its aid to Pakistan last week.
The first sign that Bhutto’s execution was imminent came early last week when his daughter, Benazir, held under house arrest along with her mother, Begum Nusrat, smuggled a note to her lawyer saying that the two women were to see the condemned man for “the last time.” On Tuesday afternoon, they were driven to the jail in a limousine escorted by two jeeploads of armed police and were allowed to spend three hours with Bhutto. They found him haggard and dirty, and because his cell was too small to accommodate them, they had to talk through a barred door.


As the Bhuttos were saying their goodbyes, truckloads of police cordoned off his ancestral village in Sindh, and soldiers slipped into the local cemetery to dig a grave. Despite jail regulations that specify dawn as the usual hour of execution, Bhutto was hanged in the dark of night. His body was wrapped in a sheet, flown to Sindh and buried within eight hours of his death. Nusrat and Benazir were not permitted to attend the funeral.
Bhutto once told his wife that he wanted to “swoop in like a meteor” and swoop out again just as quickly. “It all sounded so romantic,” she recalled. The son of a landowning family, Bhutto studied at Berkeley and Oxford before joining the Cabinet at 30. Later, as foreign minister, he steered Pakistan away from reliance on the U.S. and toward closer relations with China and the Third World. Bhutto broke with the government in 1966, but after Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh war, he assumed the leadership and almost singlehandedly restored the nation to an even keel.

The charismatic Bhutto became the first politician in Pakistani history to make the illiterate masses feel they had a stake in their government. Yet he made many enemies. He rode roughshod over those who differed with him and alienated Pakistan’s mullahs by arrogantly flaunting his fondness for Western ways, including an occasional glass of Scotch whisky. In 1977, Bhutto was accused of rigging elections, and military leaders overthrew him.

To head off demonstrations last week, Zia put army units on alert, and riot police brandishing lathis (staves) were mobilized in major cities. At first, Bhutto supporters ventured only a few prayer meetings. As the days passed, however, the tempo of the protest quickened considerably. In the town of Shikarpur in Sindh, a gun battle broke out between police and demonstrators that left fourteen people wounded. In Rawalpindi, protesters erected barbed-wire barricades, burned a pro-government newspaper office and wrecked buses. The immediate target of all the wrath was General Zia. “Ek kabar, do admi” (“One grave, two men”), declared one Rawalpindi demonstrator.
Zia was gambling that with Bhutto gone, Pakistanis would soon fall in line with the conservative Islamic republic he is attempting to create. And although members of the PPP vowed to continue Bhutto’s fight, they had been left without effective leadership. Bhutto’s politically active wife and daughter remained under house arrest, hundreds of lesser leaders were in prison, and party spokesmen lacked national statute. Still, Zia has pledged to hold elections in November, and an army poll conducted last month indicated that in a free ballot, the PPP would win. Zia may have to clamp down harder on the PPP or cancel the election altogether, and either move might eventually lead to his own downfall. Whatever happens in the coming months, Pakistan seems certain to be haunted by the ghost of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Comments are closed.