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Pakistan's SC says former PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto 'not given fair trial' in 1979 death sentence

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was removed from power in 1977 by his army chief General Zia-ul-Haq and was accused of masterminding the murder of a political rival. After a controversial trial, which many termed as flawed, Zulfikar was convicted and sentenced to death by a seven-judge bench of the apex court.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Islamabad Published on: March 06, 2024 13:38 IST
Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, death penalty
Image Source : X Former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Islamabad: Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday observed that former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not given a fair trial and due process in 1979 when he was sentenced to death by a seven-judge bench of the apex court during the regime of military dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who had overthrown the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government in July 1977.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's execution is the only instance in Pakistan's history where a former PM was hanged. One of the most popular leaders of the country, Zulfikar was removed from power by his handpicked army chief Zia, and was accused of masterminding the murder of a political rival Ahmed Reza Kasuri, a founding member of the PPP. The trial was controversial as many legal experts and observers termed it flawed.

In March 1979, the Supreme Court bench, in a split four-three verdict, upheld the Lahore High Court’s verdict awarding a death sentence to the former premier, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in Rawalpindi. The case was revived after former president Asif Ali Zardari filed a presidential reference with the Supreme Court on April 2, 2011, to seek an opinion on revisiting the death sentence, Dawn reported. The verdict on Wednesday represents a personal victory for the PPP.

What did the Supreme Court say?

Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, a nine-judge bench unanimously observed that the conditions of a fair trial were not met in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's trial. "The proceedings of the trial by the Lahore High Court and of the appeal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan do not meet the requirements of the fundamental right to a fair trial and due process enshrined in Articles 4 and 9 of the Constitution, and later guaranteed as a separate and fundamental right under Article 10A of the Constitution," Isa said.

“We must therefore be willing to confront our past missteps and fallibilities with humility, in the spirit of self-accountability, and as a testament to our commitment to ensure that justice must be served with unwavering integrity and fidelity to the law,” CJP Isa said.

Pakistan's apex court also acknowledged that there had been “some cases in our judicial history that created a public perception that either fear or favour deterred the performance of a duty to administer justice in accordance with the law”. “We cannot correct ourselves and progress in the right direction until we acknowledge our past mistakes,” said Isa.

However, the apex court said the verdict of Zulfikar's death sentence could not be changed as the Constitution and law did not allow so, and it would be maintained as a verdict. Meanwhile, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Zulfikar's grandson, solemnly stood alongside his lawyer at the court, wearing a clad in a black salwar kameez and dark blue jacket. The PPP chairman called the court’s decision “historic”, adding that they were awaiting the detailed verdict.

Hope SC's decision will allow Pakistan to progress: Bilawal

Bilawal hoped that the Supreme Court's verdict on Wednesday would allow Pakistan to progress and that the “system” would finally be put on the right path. "The stain of this decision made it difficult for the people of Pakistan to have faith in the court, and get justice from this court, especially if someone like the prime minister did not get justice,” he added.

Taking to X, the PPP chairman said, "Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not get a fair trial. The pursuit of justice was a labour of love by President Asif Ali Zardari in the name of his wife Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Our family waited 3 generations to hear these words."

After the filing of a presidential reference, an 11-member larger bench of the apex court, headed by former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, conducted five hearings in the presidential reference. The hearing was resumed by the current chief justice on December 12 following a decision to fix an instant case under the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act, 2023, according to Geo News.

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