This isn’t meant to be a Bhutto rhapsody but that does not detract from the sway he held over Pakistan as a leader in his life time and his enduring legacy.
Fourth of April, 1979. I still remember the day of this country’s great misfortune as a 4th grader in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, where my father served as a diplomat in the Pakistan High Commission.
I had an exam paper early in the day before rushing to the cricket stadium where a Pakistan team had dropped by to play a friendly on its return from Australia against the Lankans, who were yet to get Test status.
The visitors boasted some of the finest stars in the game and it seemed the entire cricket-mad island nation had converged to see the likes of Imran, Zaheer, Javed, Majid, Sarfraz, Bari, Mushtaq and Sikander in action.
The stadium was filled with cacophony of fans enjoying every moment of the game but a little past noon, an inexplicable silence descended on the ground.
We soon knew why. Some news hawkers had entered the stadium with a special one-page supplement announcing, in a banner headline, the execution of “Ali Bhutto” — as the-then prime minister was fondly called in Sri Lanka.
I soon got the drift of the iconic status Bhutto enjoyed in a land of serene beauty far away from the maddening frenzy of a despotic regime in my own. I would learn how a lawyer fan of Bhutto, who lived in the vicinity of our Colombo residence, went on a hunger strike of sorts — didn’t eat for two days — upon learning the fate of the “Third World statesman” as his like believed Bhutto was.
Thirty-two years after his execution following a highly controversial conviction over charges of abetment to murder of a political opponent, Bhutto continues to prick our conscience.
The country’s first popularly elected prime minister did not get justice in life because “two swords cannot be kept in the same scabbard”.
The reference is to military despot General Ziaul Haq, who overthrew his benefactor — some irony given that Bhutto had chosen Zia to be the army chief over and above the heads of several senior generals — and hanged him following a trial that was particularly noted for its bizarre manipulation.
The 1974 murder of Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan, a dissident of Bhutto’s People’s Party, was used in 1977 when Zia toppled Bhutto as the ground for the PPP leader’s physical elimination for the simple reason that the military ruler felt he could not survive Bhutto’s return to power in a popular election that he promised but conveniently, reneged on.
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who attended the trial, wrote:
“The prosecution’s case was based entirely on several witnesses who were detained until they confessed, who changed and expanded their confessions and testimony with each reiteration, who contradicted themselves and each other, who, except for Masood Mahmood… were relating what others said, whose testimony led to four different theories of what happened, absolutely uncorroborated by an eyewitness, direct evidence, or physical evidence.”
Masood, the director-general of the Federal Security Force, was imprisoned for two months by Zia before he took the stand against Bhutto. Maulvi Mushtaq, the judge presiding over the trial, was a compulsive Bhutto-hater, and drew perverse pleasure from humiliating the object of his ire — even going to the extent of rewriting what was said in court by Bhutto!
Judges sympathetic to the merit of Bhutto’s argument were replaced, and in one particularly obvious instance, the hearing was delayed to wait out the retirement of a judge, who disputed the merit of the charges brought on by the prosecution.
Cut to the chase, a reference made to the Supreme Court by President Asif Zardari early this month to set aside a “historic wrong” is keeping everyone busy.
However, not everyone is convinced that it is necessarily borne out of conviction. In fact, critics accuse Zardari of flogging a “dead horse” only to take the heat off his own continuing case in the apex court on account of the much reviled NRO and, by implication, to cast the “morality” and “uprightness” of the judiciary’s role — even if it is removed from the current lot — in negative light.
The criticism has stuck because — in the mother of all ironies — the man chosen to defend the reference, Babar Awan, a former Zia acolyte, is a close confidante of the president and historically hated for distributing sweets when Bhutto was hanged!
But that’s just the gift Zardari and his man are made off — just when their detractors think they have their man, he pulls a rabbit out of the hat.
Small wonder Javed Hashmi admitted last week his inability to read Zardari, saying he needed to do “a PhD” to unlearn the craft.
Regardless, it won’t hurt to set history right in the ZAB case.
The writer is a newspaper editor based
in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]