Pakistan top court says ex-PM Bhutto, hanged in 1979, was denied fair trial

The court’s ruling comes in response to a 2011 reference filed by Bhutto’s son-in-law and former President Asif Ali Zardari.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Pakistan
Former Pakistan PM Zufikar Ali Bhutto during a news conference in Paris in 1975 [File: Getty Images]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Supreme Court says former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not given a fair trial in a murder case, leading to his hanging 44 years ago.

Responding to a presidential reference filed 12 years ago, Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa said, “We didn’t find that the fair trial and due process requirements were met.”

Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), was hanged in a prison in Rawalpindi on April 4, 1979, two months after the Supreme Court found him guilty of masterminding the killing of a political rival.

The hanging came two years after Bhutto was removed from power by military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, who ruled until he died in a plane crash in August 1988.

The top court’s unanimous ruling on Wednesday wraps up a years-long hearing on the reference filed by Asif Ali Zardari, who as the country’s president in 2011 asked the court’s “opinion” on whether “due process and fair trial were complied with” in Bhutto’s murder trial.

Zardari is the husband of Bhutto’s daughter and two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007 during a political rally, and the father of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the former foreign minister and the current PPP chief.

Bhutto’s hanging was condemned by most legal experts in Pakistan as a “judicial murder” carried out at the behest of a military regime.

In his ruling, Isa said there have been cases in the past in the country’s judicial history that created a public perception that “either fear or favour deterred the performance” of the judiciary.

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

Bhutto’s grandson Bhutto Zardari was present in the court when the ruling was delivered. “Our family waited 3 generations to hear these words,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter.

He also spoke to reporters outside the court, saying he will issue a formal statement when the detailed court judgement arrives.

“The mark of this decision made it difficult for the people of Pakistan to have faith in the court, or get justice from here, especially if someone like a [former] prime minister did not get justice,” said Bhutto Zardari.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto speaking outside the court after Wednesday's verdict.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks to reporters outside the court after the verdict [EPA]

Bhutto Zardari’s younger sister Aseefa also took to X, saying his grandfather’s blood “stains the steps of the Supreme Court”.

Taj Haider, PPP leader and member of the Senate, the Pakistani parliament’s upper house, said the Supreme Court’s decision is “massive in its impact”.

“The top court took a big step in rectifying its mistakes of the past. We are hopeful that with this decision, its influence trickles down to lower courts who focus on providing justice to common public,” he told Al Jazeera.

Saroop Ijaz, a senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, said the top court’s verdict was “critically important” as the legacy of Zia-ul Haq continues to “haunt Pakistan today”.

“The Bhutto case has been the starkest example of miscarriage of justice, denial of fair trial and due process in Pakistan’s history. The formal acknowledgement by the Supreme Court of that injustice can be the first step to meaningful reform and for rebuilding people’s trust,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This judgement can and should also act as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Zia’s crimes.”

Source: Al Jazeera