The federal cabinet has finally approved the reopening of the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — who was sentenced to hang by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1979 — by filing a judicial review reference in the Supreme Court.
Reflecting the political polarisation on the case in Pakistan, one side of the divide has immediately disapproved of the idea. On the other hand, Law Minister Babar Awan, conscious of the political implications of bringing the case before a presumed hostile judiciary, has said, that “the PPP has been facing the courts for the past 40 years”. He was commenting on the Supreme Court’s order against two members of the PPP for allegedly taking part in agitation against a court decision perceived by them to be politically motivated. Critics of the PPP’s decision to revive the Bhutto Case are labelling it part of a policy of confrontation with the judiciary.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was no ordinary national leader. He was the architect of many permanent characteristics of the state, but his most meaningful contribution to the evolution of Pakistan was the 1973 Constitution. But he was controversial because of his autocratic rule. In his time, Pakistan’s judiciary was habituated to being subservient to the executive. If he behaved in a certain way towards it, he was not acting against tradition. The judges, with their own conduct, perhaps did not deserve any other treatment. The truth, however, is that after General Zia overthrew Bhutto, the judiciary lent a hand in getting rid of him through a dubious verdict. One judge of the Supreme Court bench that hanged Bhutto has publicly acknowledged that the court could have reduced his death sentence. At the Lahore High Court, a very revengeful chief justice — hurt by Bhutto’s treatment of him — had handed down a controversial verdict.
We have many famous inconclusive cases concerning the deaths of our rulers, starting from the Quaid himself, through General Zia, down to the murder of Benazir Bhutto. All of them became politicised and were consigned to the limbo of public amnesia to ‘let the state move forward’. The polarity still persists and those opposed to the reopening of the Bhutto Case want also to reopen the murder of ZAB’s son, Murtaza Bhutto, killed in Karachi when his sister Benazir was in power in Islamabad. Even the death of Ms Bhutto is linked by rivals to her husband, President Asif Ali Zardari.
Reopening old cases is not unknown in history. Nations conclude the ‘unfinished business’ of certain historical events needing moral redefinition. There is no doubt that a number of cases in Pakistan need revisiting. In the ZAB case, it has partially happened among those who have adjudged military rulers of the past as figures of negative value during interludes of dubious legality. But the politics that emerged from these interregnums has persisted and defines the conduct of political parties even today. Unfortunately, in the current situation, it is the judiciary that will once again face the political fallout from the revival of the case.
Whether we like it or not, the case will highlight the ongoing battle between the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the PPP government. Both have support among the masses, albeit with some erosion of intensity over time. The Supreme Court will come under pressure from Sindh where the cult of Bhutto persists and a section of the masses in interior Sindh blame Punjab for killing their charismatic leaders and increasingly see the judiciary in a negative light. We have seen this happening even within the judiciary earlier when the Supreme Court got divided against its Sindhi chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah.
The PPP is threatened with a premature ouster from power. Its allies in parliament have either abandoned it or threaten to abandon it to trigger midterm elections. Intentions are honourable neither among the erstwhile allies nor in the opposition. When the case reopens, it will most probably unleash an intensely polarised debate which will do an already unglued Pakistan no good.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2011.
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