Former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. – File Photo

ISLAMABAD: Law Minister Babar Awan requested the Supreme Court on Wednesday to allow him to assist it in deciding whether it could revisit its 1979 judgment that sent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows — a verdict that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and many others regard as a historical wrong.

The usually effusive minister placed a folder before the court and said rather humbly: “I’m tendering my resignation (as minister) to assist you in this reference.”

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry said the three-judge bench headed by him that had started hearing a reference sent by President Asif Ali Zardari early this month intended to appoint at least 10 amici curiae (friends of the court) from all the provinces to assist a larger bench that would proceed with the matter on a day-to-day basis, possibly from Thursday.

The reference was filed under Article 186 (1 and 2) of the Constitution which empowers the president to refer a question of public importance to the apex court to seek its opinion. It was filed in line with a decision taken by the PPP, which Mr Bhutto had founded, and endorsed by the federal cabinet.

The Supreme Court has the authority to consider the reference and give its opinion to the president.

Mr Bhutto’s execution on April 4, 1979, followed a 4-3 decision of a bench of the Supreme Court amid allegations of manipulation of the court at the behest of military ruler Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq who ignored numerous appeals from world leaders for clemency for the leader he had toppled in July 1977. The ruling was an endorsement of conviction of Mr Bhutto by Lahore High Court in a conspiracy to murder case.

A large number of PPP leaders, parliamentarians and ministers packed the courtroom on Wednesday to watch the proceedings.

Talking to reporters outside the court, Mr Awan said he would have resigned even if he was the prime minister because he considered it a great privilege to assist the court.

“This is a defining moment,” he said, adding that it would be his endeavour to get a wrong undone and an act of tyranny and oppression scrubbed from the history by presenting truth before the court. He thanked President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani for selecting him to plead the case.

PPP leader Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan said he would love to assist the court in such an important case if he was called as amicus curiae.

“I wish I had been consulted before the reference was finalised,” he said.

Mr Awan informed the court about his intention to resign when the chief justice emphasised the importance of avoiding the slightest impression that rules were not adhered to while hearing such a significant case and cited examples from the dark days of military rule when ministers had been allowed to plead their cases.

“But now the constitutional dispensation is here and institutions are functioning under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of repeating the practice of the military rule we will appreciate if Babar Awan, who for the purpose of assisting the court has tendered resignation, got his licence revived from the Pakistan Bar Council during the course of the day to appear before the court,” the chief justice said while dictating an order.

“Due to the importance and seriousness of the case, we adjourn the proceedings for Thursday at 11.30am,” the order said.

“Everyone is looking, rather people from the entire globe are watching us. Therefore, we must understand the significance of the reference brought before us by no less than the president himself under our advisory jurisdiction,” the chief justice said.

He said it was necessary to understand that the personality involved in the reference had been held in the highest esteem at the global level.

“Have you read his book, ‘If I am assassinated’, especially the chapter: ‘Death cell and history’,” he asked while pointing in the direction of Mr Awan, and said he himself was getting emotional.

“It must be a great honour for you,” the chief justice said looking at Mr Awan, that he was presenting the case of a person admired the world over.

Mr Awan conceded that it was a great honour for him and said it would not be Babar Awan speaking before the court but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from his gallows.

“The whole history will stand before you,” he said, recalling how Mr Bhutto had protested in a decent manner during his trial and referred to a famous line of a poem recited by the late prime minister: ‘Dukhan Di Marri Jindari Aleel Aai.’

Justice Mohammad Sair Ali said the court had no issue with his appearance before the court but the only anxiety was about a valid initiation of the presidential reference which should not begin on a wrong foot.

In response Mr Awan presented the file and said he was tendering his resignation as minister only to assist the court.

“Look, you are rewriting the history,” the chief justice said, adding that people would say Mr Awan had prevailed over the court. “A man of a stature like you has no comparison,” he said.

“People have sacrificed a lot, but I am sacrificing the ministry for Mr Bhutto which is nothing compared to the importance of the case,” Mr Awan said, adding that ministerial posts like these were temporary.