A leaf from history: Furious Zia gets Bhutto re-arrested

Updated June 15, 2014

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Former president Ziaul Haq (L) and former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. — File photo
Former president Ziaul Haq (L) and former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. — File photo

“What is the Constitution? It is a booklet with ten or twelve pages. I can tear them up and say that from tomorrow, we shall live under a different system. Is there anybody to stop me? Today the people will follow wherever I lead. All the politicians, including the once mighty Mr Bhutto, will follow me with their tails wagging.”

— General Ziaul Haq

Reported by Iranian publication, Kayhan International, on September 18, 1977

Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) General Ziaul Haq was managing perceptions and reality on both the home front and abroad. But the statement above, issued while the General was in Iran, alarmed political circles: would elections even be conducted?

Of course Gen Zia knew that in order for him to stay in power, he would have to erase Bhutto’s influence. The CMLA was cognizant about the deposed prime minister’s personal ties with leaders of various Islamic countries. After the General’s initial yet terrifying musings on his preferred system of governance, questions were being asked all around.

Gen Zia thought it best to meet various leaders as and when it became possible, so as to dispel any pejorative sentiments about overthrowing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. After his unofficial trip to Saudi Arabia, Zia decided to head to Iran. He flew to Tehran on September 14, four days before restrictions on political activities were to be lifted, with the meeting with the Shah of Iran taking place in a cordial manner. Iran reiterated its close ties with Pakistan.

On the home front, however, things weren’t all rosy.

Bhutto’s release on bail sent Gen Zia into shock: he of course wanted the deposed prime minister to be kept in jail at any cost. The bail had been granted by Lahore High Court’s Justice Khwaja Mohammad Ahmad Samdani — a Hyderabad Deccan-born civil servant-turned judge, who had the reputation of being an honest man and fair juror. When Bhutto’s bail plea was presented before him, he granted it on the grounds that “the case did not hold any legal ground”.


Amidst rhetoric and appeals, pro-Zia chief justice takes charge


When an infuriated Gen Zia questioned General Iqbal, the martial administrator of Punjab, about not arresting Bhutto following his bail proceedings, Gen Iqbal replied that there were no complaints against Bhutto and therefore he could not arrest the former premier. Zia lost his cool at the reply, ordering Gen Iqbal to arrest Bhutto before he addressed a public meeting in Multan. Gen Iqbal evaded this too; his punishment for this insubordination came later: he was overlooked for the post of Punjab governor. Judge Samdani too was later transferred to the Sindh High Court.

In Multan, Bhutto was his fiery self: lambasting the Zia regime, he said that the country could not be run by promulgating martial law regulations and wrapping citizens around barbed wires. He said that he would celebrate Eid in Larkana and if remained a free man, he would launch his elections campaign from there.

From Multan he arrived in Karachi, from where he proceeded to Larkana. Three days after his release, however, Bhutto’s bail was cancelled. On the night of September 16, a group of army commandos climbed the walls of Al-Murtaza, the Bhuttos’ family residence in Larkana, and arrested Bhutto once again under Martial Law Regulation 12. The regulation empowered law enforcement agencies personnel to arrest a person who was working against security, law and order, or the smooth running of martial law. This law could not be challenged in any court of law.

The Martial Law Regulation 12 was in fact extensively used by the Zia regime against all those whom he took an exception to. Bhutto was not alone; 10 other Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leaders were also held under the same law: Mumtaz Bhutto, Hafeez Pirzada, Dr Ghulam Hussain, Ghaus Bakhsh Raisani, Iqbal Ahmad Jadoon, Nasrullah Khattak, Shaikh Mohammad Rashid, Khalid Malik, Malik Mohammad Hayat Tamman and Humayoon Saifullah. They were lodged at the rest house in Sihala.

After incarcerating Bhutto and his party’s leaders, Gen Zia told journalists that Bhutto had offered to face any investigations against him — which the CMLA had decided to accept; Bhutto and his colleagues would be tried in military courts. Gen Zia levelled charges of dishonesty, corruption and using the official machinery for his gains. He also claimed that Bhutto had employed official security against political opponents and had orchestrated massive rigging in the 1977 elections.

The dye had been cast, but on the surface, it seemed Gen Zia’s wrath was all aimed at Bhutto. The CMLA kept reaffirming that elections would be held as scheduled; in fact, on September 15, the General lifted the state of emergency and withdrew the Defence of Pakistan Rules (DPR).

On September 18, electioneering began in all parts of the country, but with tempers running high, some skirmishes among political activists were reported. Nonetheless, the campaigning continued unabated, with almost all political leaders demanding polls to be conducted on time.

While Zia’s political somersaults were being criticised, Begum Nusrat Bhutto filed a constitutional petition in the Supreme Court on September 20, challenging the imposition of Martial Law as well as the authority of the CMLA in arresting Bhutto and other leaders of the party under MLO No 12.

In her petition, Begum Bhutto contended that the Chief of Army Staff had no authority under the 1973 Constitution to impose martial law or to promulgate any supra-constitutional laws. Gen Zia’s intervention thus amounted to an act of treason as per Article 6 of the Constitution. Begum Bhutto pleaded that the proclamation of martial law on July 5, 1977, the laws (Continuance in Force) Order, 1977 as well as MLO No 12, under which the political leaders had been arrested and detained, were all without lawful authority.

Gen Zia had anticipated this move, but he had already planned how to face it and get the coup legal sanction. While the court fixed September 20 for hearing, Gen Zia moved to replace Chief Justice Yaqoob Ali Khan with Justice Anwarul Haq. The CMLA knew that Justice Khan — a man known for his idealism — would declare him as a traitor, if the legal case were to take its course. Justice Haq was far more likely to hand a friendly verdict; after all, he was far friendlier with Gen Zia than Justice Khan ever would be.

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