43 years ago in April 1979, a former prime minster of Pakistan, Z.A. Bhutto, was executed for allegedly ordering the murder of a political opponent in 1974. The opponent did not belong to an opposition party. He was elected on a ticket given to him by Bhutto’s own political outfit, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). He was Ahmad Raza Kasuri, who had won a seat in Punjab as a member of the PPP during the 1970 election. But it was his father who was killed in an ambush that Kasuri claimed was set for him.
A year after the 1970 elections (that were swept by Bhutto’s PPP in the erstwhile West Pakistan), Mr. Bhutto became President of Pakistan. He replaced General Yahya Khan who was quietly ousted from power by a group of officers when East Pakistan broke away in December 1971. It became Bangladesh after Bengali nationalists backed by India defeated Pakistani forces in a vicious civil war.
Then, in 1973, Bhutto became Prime Minister when the National Assembly adopted a new Constitution. Kasuri was once a Bhutto loyalist who had links with the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP). A graduate of Cambridge University and a lawyer, Kasuri became an active member of the PPP in 1967, the year it was formed. A volatile character, Kasuri was given a PPP ticket to contest the 1970 election from a National Assembly constituency in Lahore (NW-63).
His main opponent was Mian Jamil of the right-wing Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP). Kasuri received 52,769 votes, defeating Jamil who bagged 49,920 votes. But by early 1972, Kasuri’s romance with the PPP had already begun to erode. He began to openly criticise Bhutto in the Parliament, even though he was neither expelled from the party, nor did he resign.
Bhutto tried to ignore Kasuri’s tirades, but they began to get louder than ever. The criticism was largely erratic. He attacked Bhutto for going back on the promises that he had made before coming to power. The tirades were designed to upset Bhutto. Kasuri also refused to put his signature on the new constitution in 1973, which was authored, signed and passed by the treasury as well as the opposition benches. In the winter of 1974, Kasuri was travelling in a car with his father, when some men ambushed them and fired bullets at the car. His father was hit and died in a nearby hospital.
Kasuri accused PM Bhutto. He got the police to lodge an FIR against the PM. The government did not stop him from doing this. Forward to December 1976. Bhutto announced a general election (to be held in March 1977). The elections were swept by the PPP. A multi-party alliance, consisting of the country’s three main Islamist parties and some centrist and left-wing groups, alleged that the elections were rigged. The alliance had contested the election as Pakistan National Alliance (PNA).
The late Pakistani scholar and historian KB Sayeed wrote in his 1980 book Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change that even though Bhutto had lost the support of certain leftist student groups, the urban-middle-and lower-middle-classes, and of small farmers, he was still popular among the urban proletariat and peasants.
In his 2001 book The Mirage of Power, the late Dr. Mubashir Hasan, a former minister in Bhutto’s cabinet and one of the founders of the PPP, wrote that some bureaucrats and party workers went a bit overboard in altering the results of some NA seats in Punjab. According to Hasan, the PPP would have still won the majority of the seats even if it had lost the ones where the ballot boxes were stuffed. Nevertheless, Bhutto refused to entertain PNA’s demand for a new election.
PNA thus began a protest movement that became particularly violent in Karachi and Lahore. Mosques were used by Islamist parties to galvanise support for the movement. The main agitators were workers of Islamist parties and their youth wings; and shopkeepers and traders. The movement was funded by industrialists who had been stung by Bhutto’s so-called ‘socialist’ policies (KB Sayeed, ibid).
Many areas were put under curfew. The agitation lasted for three months. An estimated 200 people were killed in the violence, mostly from police firing (I.Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, 2012). The opposition also accused the Federal Security Force (FSF) of firing at protesters. In 1972, when the Lahore police went on strike, the city’s law and order situation became precarious. Bhutto formed the FSF, an armed security force that was to directly report to Bhutto. According to Dr. Mubashir Hasan, the FSF was also formed to come to President Bhutto’s aid in case there was an attempt by the military to overthrow him in a coup. FSF was also often used to keep the opposition and PPP dissidents in check.
As the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement continued to grow more violent, Bhutto began negotiations with opposition leaders. He held numerous rounds of talks, and almost agreed to PNA’s main demand of holding fresh elections. In 2010, a senior leader of the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) Professor Ghafoor Ahmad told GeoNews that just when it seemed that the government and the opposition had finally reached an agreement, General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the Bhutto regime and ordered the arrest of all top PPP and PNA leaders.
Mosques were used by Islamist parties to galvanise support for the movement. The main agitators were workers of Islamist parties and their youth wings; and shopkeepers and traders. The movement was funded by industrialists who had been stung by Bhutto’s so-called ‘socialist’ policies
PM Bhutto, too, was arrested. But Zia was extremely courteous towards him and told him that the martial law was a temporary measure to cool down the political temperature. Zia announced that the military regime would hold new elections in October 1977. Political leaders were released and allowed to campaign for their respective parties. But by then, PNA had already begun to come apart.
Some of its leaders wanted Bhutto to be kept out of the election, while others wanted military rule to continue. After his release, Bhutto travelled to his ancestral city, Larkana. There, in a gathering, he said that on his return to power, he will teach a lesson to the generals who had overthrown him. This was reported to Zia, who wasn’t amused. Then, JUP’s chief Shah Ahmad Noorani was attacked by a mob of angry PPP workers in Lahore. Bhutto condemned the attack.
He was in Lahore to address a rally. The rally soon swelled as thousands gathered to listen to the fallen PM. In this rally, Bhutto announced that overthrowing an elected government was high treason, and the punishment for treason was death. This startled Zia. He again got Bhutto arrested and postponed the election. After Bhutto’s threatening tirade, Zia was convinced that Bhutto needed to go for good. There was every likelihood of him returning to power.
Looking for a hangman
The veteran leftist leader and ideologue late Jamal Naqvi wrote in his book Leaving The Left Behind that Zia first approached Baloch nationalist leader Attaullah Mengal, who had been persecuted and arrested by the Bhutto regime during the Balochistan insurgency between 1973 and 1977. Zia met with Mengal soon after the Baloch leader’s release (ordered by Zia) and told him that he could arrest Bhutto for murder if Mengal was willing to testify against the former prime minister and accuse him of ordering the disappearance and murder of Mengal’s 24-year-old son, Asad Mengal.
In 1974, Asad Mengal had been picked up by security forces from Karachi and was never seen again. Naqvi added that after hearing out Zia’s proposal, Mengal declined to testify and implicate his former tormentor on unsubstantiated charges.
After he was unable to convince Mengal, Zia decided to implicate Bhutto for presiding over the break-up of Pakistan. He ordered his Information Ministry to conduct an interview with former military dictator General Yahya Khan. In his book Uncensored former General Manager of PTV’s Rawalpindi station Burhanuddin Hassan wrote that the Zia regime ordered PTV to conduct an interview with Yahya, who was living a quiet life under house arrest ever since his fall from power in December 1971.
Zia wanted the interview to focus on the debacle that saw East Pakistan separate from the rest of Pakistan. Knowing that Yahya would put all the blame on Bhutto (who had worked closely with Yahya during the crises), Zia planned to then proceed and arrest Bhutto on the charges of treason.
According to Hassan, Yahya was reluctant. He told Hassan that he had already said what he wanted to say about the East Pakistan ‘debacle’ to the Hamoodur Rahman Commission that was set up by the Bhutto regime to investigate East Pakistan’s separation. But eventually, PTV was able to convince the former general. However, the former general suddenly fell ill and was unable to give the interview. Hence, it was only after the Mengal and Yahya ploys had failed to provide the Zia regime a reason to entangle Bhutto in a serious case, that the regime came up with the idea of digging out the old, dusty FIR of the Kasuri murder.
In fact, according to Lt. General Faiz Ali Chisti (in his book Betrayals of Another Kind), it was the anti-Bhutto lawyer A.K. Brohi and technocrat Sharifuddin Pirzada who advised Zia to allow the reopening of a 1974 murder case registered against the former PM. Chisti had been one of the masterminds of the 1977 coup. The FIR was dug out.
Hein Kiessling in his book Faith, Unity, Discipline wrote that after SC rejected Bhutto’s appeal, Zia asked the premier Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI to conduct a quick study to determine what would be the people’s reaction if Bhutto was to be hanged. Kiessling wrote that ISI advised Zia not to go ahead with the hanging. But Zia ignored the advice and gave the green signal for the former PM’s execution
Yet, after being arrested on this charge, Bhutto was released when a judge, Justice KMA Samadani, found the evidence to be contradictory and incomplete. But the Zia government arrested Bhutto again after getting testimonies of five members of the FSF, including its head, Masood Mahmoud.
Initially, Masood turned hostile against the prosecution and accused the police of “extracting false testimonies under torture.” However, he soon became an approver and testified against Bhutto, claiming that Kasuri’s murder was ordered by Bhutto. Due to a deal that he had struck with the dictatorship, Masood was allowed to travel to the US.
Interestingly, he received a US visa within days. He hasn’t been heard from since, even though many believe he is still residing in the US. The FSF was made up of about 15,000 trained men who were given sophisticated weapons. FSF offices were open across the country. In a 1997 article for Dawn, the celebrated columnist, the late Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote that the FSF was mandated to look after the PM’s security and also counter any move by the military to topple the civilian regime. But it eventually became a tool for Bhutto to silence his opponents.
A former police officer Haq Nawaz Tawana was made the first chief of the FSF. But he was soon replaced by Masood Mahmoud. Masood had begun his professional career in the Indian Police Service two years before the creation of Pakistan in 1947. After Partition, he became a citizen of Pakistan. He then got a degree in law from Lincoln’s Inn in London. According to Rafi Raza in his book Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan-1967-1977, Bhutto and Masood were good friends. They had first met at a bar in Karachi in the mid-1950s.
The Kasuri case was transferred from Justice Samdani’s session’s court to the Lahore High Court (LHC). The trial ran for five months and was headed by a staunch anti-Bhutto judge, Maulvi Mushtaq. Chisti wrote that Mushtaq’s promotion to the Supreme Court had been stalled by PM Bhutto. This is why Zia insisted that Justice Mushtaq hears the case.
On 18 March 1978, the LHC passed the death sentence on Bhutto. It gave him seven days to appeal against the verdict in front of the Supreme Court (SC). Bhutto’s wife Nusrat and daughter Benazir were under house arrest at the time. An appeal was filed by Bhutto’s lawyer to the SC. A SC panel of nine judges heard the appeal. The panel was headed by Chief Justice Anwar-ul-Haq. Justice Anwar had been elevated to the post of Chief Justice in September 1977 during the third month of Zia’s martial law. He had provided legal cover to Zia’s coup. Two judges on the panel were clearly not convinced by the LHC verdict. One of them was Justice Qaiser Khan who was set to retire on 31 July 1978. Interestingly, Justice Anwar decided to stretch the hearing, as if waiting for Qaiser to retire.
The panel now had 8 judges. Another judge, Justice Waheeduddin, who was expected to rule against the verdict suddenly fell ill and could not attend the hearings. He asked that the Chief Justice to delay the hearing till he was healthy enough to rejoin the panel. Anwar declined. The proceedings dragged on till February 1979. On 6 February 1979, Anwar announced that the SC had decided to reject the appeal and uphold the death verdict.
Despite Qaiser’s retirement and Waheeduddin’s illness, it was a divided judgment. Out of the remaining 7 judges, 4 upheld the verdict and 3 rejected it. According to the norms of practiced law, capital punishment cannot be delivered through a divided judgment. But in this case, it was.
Enough evidence has been provided by various legal experts on the controversial and lopsided nature of the LHC trial and the SC hearing. Initially, most of Zia’s advisors were of the view that the case would not hold in a court of law. But it actually went on to not only convict the former prime minister of murder, but also send him to the gallows.
Hein Kiessling in his book Faith, Unity, Discipline wrote that after SC rejected Bhutto’s appeal, Zia asked the premier Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI to conduct a quick study to determine what would be the people’s reaction if Bhutto was to be hanged. Kiessling wrote that ISI advised Zia not to go ahead with the hanging. But Zia ignored the advice and gave the green signal for the former PM’s execution.
Bhutto was hanged in early morning of 4 April 1979. Tara Masih, his executioner, recalled that Bhutto took a bath, shaved and had a cup of tea. Then shortly before his hanging, he put on his wedding ring. Bhutto’s body was quietly flown to his ancestral village in Ghari Khudabakhsh. Only a handful of men from the village were allowed to bury him. His wife and daughter were not given permission to attend his funeral.