Fair Retrial of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: A Chance for Judiciary to Redeem Itself

Retrying Bhutto
The News, Editorial: December 27, 2006

A former Supreme Court judge's contentious remarks while speaking at a lecture organised by the PPP, revolving around the possibility of a reopening of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's case, will surely spark-off a heated debate across the country. The controversy, as is clearly evident by the continued debate on the topic, remains as potent today as it was nearly 30 years ago. The enigmatic Bhutto was unceremoniously dismissed in 1977, and subsequently hanged, by the incoming Martial Law of Ziaul Haq after being controversially found guilty by the Lahore High Court for conspiracy to murder. However, one cannot help but feel that the matter is long passed and the nation today faces many more important issues which deserve immediate attention. A reopening of this case would just tie up Pakistan's already thin judicial resources, which would, in turn, further exacerbate the backlog problem in the courts. In addition, the violent political backlash, which is always a distinct possibility when dealing with the reopening of sensitive old wounds, will do more harm than good, especially considering the already volatile socio-political milieu present in the country today.

Furthermore, with the presence of an army general at the helm, who himself dismissed a prime minister and had him tried in a controversial manner, indicates that there is little difference in the political structure compared to 1977. There is still the continued influence of the army in government institutions and the imbalance of power between the executive and judicial organs of the state. Even if the case is reopened, and Bhutto subsequently found to be wrongly accused, the verdict would still be susceptible to the same sort of criticism that was flung at the initial trial under Zia. In short, the act would be inherently self-defeating. Yet, one cannot simply dismiss such a proposal as futile and unimportant. The fact remains that whether or not Bhutto was guilty is inconsequential. Instead, the fact that he was dismissed by an army general, under whom he was tried in a subservient court system, forms the crux of the issue.

There could be some constructive prospects in embarking on such an act if one is willing to leave aside the subjective and personal matter of the case's outcome and concentrate on the larger picture. There is little, if any doubt, that Bhutto was tried under what were less-than-ideal circumstances, to say the least. The subservience of the then CJ to the military dictator was open knowledge as was the pressure on other judges to comply with the decision to hang Bhutto. That was, and is, a central problem in Pakistan. Aside from the historical significance, the case could potentially serve as a platform to formally condemn the intervention of the military in civilian affairs and, of course, the subservience of the courts to the executive. That, however, would have to mean that the efforts are concentrated on criticising the nature of the trail and not defending Bhutto himself. The defendant here would not be Bhutto, but democracy and judicial autonomy.


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