Soon after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Some suggested that it was, in fact, General Faiz Ali Chishti who killed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto before his hanging and that a mock hanging was later staged for public consumption.
Then there were rumours that were doing the rounds before his death: some claimed that Bhutto won’t be hanged. Others suggested that an airplane sent by a friendly Muslim country was standing by on the Islamabad tarmac to take Bhutto away from Pakistan. Some even said that General Zia could not resist foreign pressure, especially that of the United States.
There were also significant leaders telling people that soon Bhutto would be among them. Without giving a thought to the sensitivity of a high-profile case, people began believing that Bhutto won’t be hanged. All rumours died on the night between April 3-4, 1979 along with Bhutto himself.
Some believed that the deposed prime minister was not hanged, but was in fact killed after he refused to issue a confessional statement
It appeared that these rumours had also reached Gen Zia, but he was unmoved. He kept his eyes and ears open after the March 24 verdict. At the same time, he called a meeting of Martial Law Administrators (MLAs) to discuss the issue. He had already discussed the clemency issue with the civilian members of the reshuffled cabinet before talking to his military associates on the very evening of March 24.
The General told the MLAs that he did not support accepting the mercy petition, to which the MLAs agreed and said that there should be no prolonged suspension of the execution. Later, on April 1, Gen Zia picked up the file of mercy petitions in his drawing room and wrote three words: “Petition is rejected”. This allowed various departments to make arrangements for acting on the verdict. On the very day, he had also discussed the law and order issue in Sindh as a result of the execution, which had already also been discussed with the Sindh government.
On the domestic front, no political leader pressed for clemency, rather all civilian members of the cabinet representing various political parties had backed Gen Zia’s idea. Pir Pagara said that granting clemency to Bhutto would mean allowing barbarianism on innocent people. Gen Zia himself told an interviewer of the BBC that he would act on the judicial decision, thereby demonstrating that the law of the land was supreme.
There were wild reports circulating around too, which said that Bhutto might be set free through a commando operation in Rawalpindi Jail, where Bhutto had been jailed awaiting execution. Intelligence agencies reported the matter to Gen Zia, who immediately ordered tightening of security to pre-empt such kind of action.
To strengthen the security of the jail, an army contingent was deployed outside the jail. Army men were also placed outside the jail so that a message could be given to ‘adventurists’ planning on any such action.
In fact, there was no such plan of commando action by any group or country.
While security was beefed up outside the main gate, more strict measures were taken inside the jail. Since the district jail was a provincial subject, the provincial government had already taken foolproof measures inside the jail.
Lt-Col Rafiuddin, who was designated as the security battalion commander, had been deputed inside the jail for over 10 months before Bhutto’s hanging. He kept a vigilant eye on Bhutto, occasionally spoke to him and also performed his duty. After Bhutto’s hanging, he and another officer, Brigadier Rahat Latif, accompanied Bhutto’s body from jail to Larkana.
Gen Chishti later wrote that in recognition of these services, the two gentlemen were promoted. Lt-Col Rafiuddin became military attaché and was sent abroad, while Brig. Latif was promoted to the rank of Major-General. The latter was named in a rumoured report as the man designated to extract a confessional statement from Bhutto during the last night; but owing to Bhutto’s refusal, he was tortured and killed before hanging. These rumours could never be corroborated by any evidence.
Gen Faiz Ali Chishti, too, was accused of playing a part in this fiasco. This was a major controversy, but few understood where such rumours were emanating from.
In his book Betrayals of Another Kind, Chishti says that these rumours surfaced after a statement issued by Ghulam Mustafa Khar (who had reached London by now), and which was printed in the Daily Express of London in its May 23, 1979 issue. The story, published nearly two months after Bhutto’s hanging and authored by Robert Eddison, claimed that the hanging was a cover-up for death by torture. It claimed that an overzealous brigadier had kicked Bhutto to death for refusing to give a confessional statement.
Khar allegedly told the reporter that Zia had summoned a meeting of the top Generals on the morning of April 3, and after agreeing to hang Bhutto, ordered Brigadier Rahat Latif to extract a confessional handwritten statement from Bhutto before he died. Zia promised Latif that his success would earn him a general’s rank.
But after Bhutto’s refusal, the army officer allegedly kicked Bhutto to death. Army officers panicked thereafter, according to the story, and told the high command that Bhutto had expired. Gen Zia then ordered that Bhutto’s body be taken on a stretcher for hanging. The same brigadier later accompanied the body flown to Larkana.
This report unnerved Gen Chishti, who contradicted the story and issued a rejoinder. But this response was published on Dec 9, 1985, some six years after the incident. In his statement, Gen Chishti claimed that Bhutto was not tortured to death before hanging. He also said that he never went to Bhutto’s death cell nor was he in Rawalpindi that night.
A report in Pakistani dailies Morning News and Pakistan Times also published a statement issued by the Punjab home secretary, bearing clarification about statements issued by Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, who had also claimed torture on Bhutto. Although the clarifications were issued on Aug 20, 1980, there was no stopping the rumour mill.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 15th, 2015