Doing justice to Bhutto - Asif Ezdi - Monday, April 25, 2011

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service.

The application made by Zardari to the Supreme Court to reopen the Bhutto murder trial 32 years after his sentencing and execution has been called a stunt whose main purpose is to distract attention from mounting public anger at poor governance, economic mismanagement and rampant corruption under the PPP-led government.

But the Bhutto reference is more than political gimmickry. It is also a continuation of the government’s not-so-subtle effort to portray the Supreme Court as having an anti-Sindhi bias. This effort has been going on since the Supreme Court decision in 2009 to invalidate the NRO and pursue the Swiss case against Zardari.

An earlier manifestation of that was the orchestrated campaign against the Supreme Court after its verdict last month declaring that the appointment of Deedar Shah as NAB chairman was illegal and void. The Sindh Assembly passed a resolution indirectly attacking the decision, and a strike was observed in the province on a call by the Sindh chapter of the PPP, no doubt with Zardari’s blessing. A similar resolution was passed by the assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa at the PPP’s initiative, with the support of its coalition partner, the ANP.

After Zardari’s decision to refer the Bhutto case to the Supreme Court, a fresh attempt was made to bring political pressure on the court through the provincial assemblies. This time the PPP co-chairman decided not to raise the matter in the Sindh Assembly but in the provincial assemblies of the two other smaller provinces. The Balochistan Assembly on Friday 3 April passed a resolution expressing appreciation for Zardari’s efforts to reopen the Bhutto case. That is unexceptionable, as far as it goes. But the assembly went further and “demanded” that the court “reopen and re-conduct hearing of that case.” Five days later, supporting the reopening of the Bhutto case, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly expressed the hope that the Supreme Court would give its verdict according to public expectations. This is unusual, because courts are supposed to decide cases according to the law, without paying heed to political considerations or popular expectations.

The decision of the Supreme Court to give a full hearing to the Bhutto reference and to associate leading lawyers from all four provinces in its deliberations will have disappointed Zardari and many other stalwarts of the PPP, who are interested much less in having Bhutto’s name cleared than in embarrassing the court because it has been pursuing corruption charges against them. The Sindh chief minister has demanded that the court should undo a historic wrong without going into the “technicalities” of the matter. These sentiments are understandable, but it so happens that the courts are bound to apply the law alone, and have to act within its bounds. If the Constitution and the law, as they stand today, do not allow a reopening of the case, it is to be hoped that in its advisory opinion the Supreme Court will be able to suggest legislative measures that parliament could take to allow a reopening of criminal cases. And not only in Bhutto’s murder trial but also in other rare cases of gross miscarriage of justice discovered after the normal avenues of appeal and review have been exhausted.

We should also remember that the responsibility for Bhutto’s execution is shared by the politicians who collaborated with Zia. Javed Hashmi has done well to seek the forgiveness of the nation for having served under the military dictator. But there are others in several political parties who did the same and should be following Javed Hashmi’s example. He named some of them, but there are many more.

To be fair to Babar Awan, he was not among them. He was then just a young lawyer struggling to make a career for himself in the legal profession and in politics and needed powerful patrons to realise his ambitions. Like many others, he decided that his prospects would best be advanced by his taking up service with the hangers-on of the-then military dictator. Along the way, he also won his famous “doctorate.” He later changed his political colours with the change of the political wind, but he was not the only one. If he does not want to be reminded of the “follies” of his youth, we should not be passing too harsh a moral judgement.

Bhutto’s achievements during his six years in power were great, as were his failings. On the plus side, there are three major accomplishments. First, he won an honourable settlement at Simla after the country’s military defeat in East Pakistan. Second, he gave Pakistan a unanimously adopted Constitution, which though mutilated by later military rulers, continues to provide a powerful cohesive bond between all parts of the country. Third, he laid the foundations of the country’s nuclear programme, which was later to free Pakistan for ever from the shadow of India’s hegemonic ambitions.

There was also a fourth achievement which Bhutto probably had not intended: the awakening of the ordinary people (the awam) to their rights as equal citizens of the country. What he probably thought would only serve as populist slogans to win votes became etched on the collective mind, never to be erased from national consciousness.

Bhutto’s failings were just as great. He was a demagogue and a phoney socialist and had no interest in introducing any real reforms that could loosen the stranglehold of the ruling caste. Despite his Western education and lifestyle, he remained at heart a feudal landowner who thought he was born to rule. He cared little for democracy or the rule of law. He was vindictive and intolerant of dissent. His biggest political blunder probably was to dismiss the elected provincial governments of the-then NWFP and Balochistan and to ban the NAP.

The full truth about the murder for which Bhutto was hanged will never be known. But whatever his involvement might have been, he deserved a fair trial. He did not get it. The result had been preordained. The way Maulvi Mushtaq Husain conducted the proceedings in the Lahore High Court was disgusting. His bias could be seen writ large throughout the proceedings. The Supreme Court gave him a hearing but allowed itself in the end to be manipulated by the military dictator.

It will not be enough now to reopen the trial and declare that Bhutto was wrongfully convicted. Those who committed the judicial murder must also be brought to justice, as the Balochistan Assembly has demanded.

During his trial in the Lahore High Court, Bhutto said to Maulvi Mushtaq that his “turn” would come too. Maulvi Mushtaq is no more, but Nasim Hasan Shah is still with us. In his memoirs, he has written about the pressure under which the judges were put to get Bhutto sentenced to death. That they succumbed to it shows lack of character. Nasim Hasan Shah has also said that he upheld the death sentence passed by the High Court because Yahya Bakhtiar, Bhutto’s counsel, annoyed the judges (naraz kia) by his obstinacy (zid) in demanding acquittal rather than a milder sentence. To a layman, Nasim Hasan Shah’s statements amount to an admission of guilt. He must be held accountable.

But those who pressured the court to order Bhutto’s hanging are no less guilty. Zia is gone, but some of the generals who were with him, like K M Arif and Faiz Ali Chishti, are fortunately alive and must be investigated. The role of Sharifuddin Pirzada who hatched the plan to eliminate Bhutto through the judiciary must also be brought to light.

We must do justice to Bhutto not for his sake alone. We must do it also because we owe it to ourselves as a nation. People who are entrusted with important positions should know that they will be held answerable for their deeds, sooner or later.


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