Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto

The Pakistani government of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq seized the opportunity to eliminate a political rival when it executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister, after Bhutto was found guilty of complicity in a political murder.

Summary of Event

The career of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the significance of his ultimate fate can be understood and appreciated only within the broader context of Pakistan’s political history. The most decisive factor in this history is the country’s creation. Pakistan was born on August 14, 1947, when the British ended two centuries of imperial rule over the Indian subcontinent and transferred governing authority to two countries, India and Pakistan. India inherited a political tradition and a culture that were millennia old. Pakistan, in contrast, could lay claim to no prior existence as a separate country. It had come into being as the result of a separatist movement based on the common identity and sense of minority status of the South Asian Muslim community. India, which declared itself to be a secular state, contained a majority Hindu population as well as citizens of many other communities, including millions of Muslims. Pakistan, in contrast, was intended to be a homeland for Muslims, which meant that its social and political institutions were to be fashioned according to the dictates of Islam. Pakistan;government
Executions;Zulfikar Ali Bhutto[Bhutto]
Capital punishment
[kw]Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto (Apr. 4, 1979)
[kw]Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto, Pakistan (Apr. 4, 1979)
[kw]Prime Minister Bhutto, Pakistan Hangs Former (Apr. 4, 1979)
[kw]Bhutto, Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister (Apr. 4, 1979)
Executions;Zulfikar Ali Bhutto[Bhutto]
Capital punishment
[g]South Asia;Apr. 4, 1979: Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto[03550]
[g]Pakistan;Apr. 4, 1979: Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto[03550]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Apr. 4, 1979: Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto[03550]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 4, 1979: Pakistan Hangs Former Prime Minister Bhutto[03550]
Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali
Mujibur Rahman
Zia-ul-Haq, Mohammad
Yahya Khan, Agha Mohammad

The combination of newly gained independence and the role of Islam created a difficult environment within which Pakistan tried to develop politically. For nine years, Pakistan attempted to govern itself by means of a legal framework set down by the Government of India Act of 1935, Government of India Act (1935) a document enacted by the British to meet their imperial needs in governing India. Designing a constitutional framework befitting Pakistan’s distinctive needs and desires was extremely difficult. Issues concerning the institutions of government and the rights, duties, and responsibilities of citizens were so intensely controversial that the nation did not finally agree to a constitution until 1956.

This proved to be an abortive effort, as the attempt to blend Western political traditions and institutions with the establishment of an Islamic state proved beyond the grasp of Pakistan’s political leaders. The results of this experience were chronic political disorder and frequent direct intervention by the military into the political affairs of the country, a practice that continually frustrated, and indeed inhibited, Pakistan’s political development. The constitution of 1956 lasted only two years, and martial law was declared for the first time in Pakistan in 1958. Martial law;Pakistan The military regime, after reestablishing civil order, set about crafting a new constitution, one that would not borrow directly from the European parliamentary model, in which voters directly choose their representatives. Instead, an indirect approach was chosen in which the political system was divided into layers and the representatives of each layer would choose the personnel of the next higher level.

This arrangement was introduced in the new constitution of 1962. This constitution, carefully crafted to suit the interests of the military and the bureaucracy, set Pakistan on a course of political development that was fully consistent with Western models of administrative organization but, at the same time, gave only limited political and social freedoms to the citizenry. The new regime, under General Mohammad Ayub Khan, Ayub Khan, Mohammad lasted for more than a decade. During that time, Pakistan became a close friend of and received considerable financial support from the United States. In the late 1960’s, however, Ayub’s government encountered increasing difficulties generated by the politically frustrated opposition. Those opposed to the government included not only those seeking more democracy and freedom but also advocates of a more vigorous Islamic approach to nation building. Opposition came to a head following the failure of Pakistan’s military in its confrontation with India over Kashmir in 1965.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

(Library of Congress)

Among those opposing the regime was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, scion of a wealthy family of landlords in the province of Sindh. Bhutto came to hold an important place in Pakistani politics in the late 1950’s. During the period of Mohammad Ayub Khan’s rule, Bhutto was Pakistan’s foreign minister. He eventually broke with Ayub and formed his own political party, the Pakistan People’s Party Pakistan People’s Party[Pakistan Peoples Party] (PPP).

The government’s incapacity to deal with mounting disorder again brought out the army. Martial law was established for the second time, and Ayub was replaced by another general, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan was committed to democratic elections to resolve fundamental constitutional issues, especially the relationship between the East and West wings of the country.

Two major political parties were involved in Pakistan’s election of 1971. The Awami League, Awami League under the leadership of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, represented East Pakistan. In West Pakistan, although there were several parties, the largest and most powerful was Bhutto’s PPP. The Awami League won a decisive majority in the National Assembly, capturing nearly all the seats allocated to the East wing. Bhuttos’s PPP managed to gain only a majority of the seats allocated to the West wing.

In the negotiations leading to the meeting of the National Assembly, the Awami League demanded a new constitution that would give East Pakistan the political dominance to which it was entitled by virtue of its larger population. Bhutto, and most West Pakistanis, viewed this effort to control the agenda for determining a new constitution as tantamount to the secession of the East wing. Bhutto refused to attend the meeting of the National Assembly on the grounds that the Awami League was unwilling to compromise. Yahya Khan’s attempts to resolve the situation through negotiations proved fruitless. On March 26, 1971, the army intervened in East Pakistan, and civil war resulted. In December, India invaded East Pakistan and brought the conflict to an end. East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Yahya Khan was removed from power, and Bhutto assumed control of the government in a truncated Pakistan.

Bhutto had come to power at the time of Pakistan’s most severe national and international crisis. The new government moved quickly to resolve many of the problems facing the country. Bhutto went to Simla and met with Indian leader Indira Gandhi. Gandhi, Indira The negotiations gave a new and cooperative tone to India-Pakistan relations. Bhutto also set about drafting a new constitution that radically altered the direction of Pakistan’s politics. This new constitution, introduced in 1973, expanded the political and economic opportunities of ordinary citizens. All educational institutions were nationalized in an attempt to expand opportunities for low-income groups. Labor unions were encouraged and were given enhanced legal standing. Restrictions on the press and political organizations were reduced. In taking these actions, Bhutto offended traditional political constituencies, especially Islamic fundamentalists and conservative elements in the military and the bureaucracy. Moreover, the less restrictive atmosphere encouraged opposition to the central government by some provincial groups, especially in Baluchistan.

Having raised expectations, the Pakistani government found it increasingly difficult to meet public demands. Bhutto was no more successful than his predecessors had been in controlling communal rivalry. Pakistani politics had always been volatile, and street demonstrations were a way of life. Political opposition to the government became increasingly violent among diverse groups who were, for various reasons, frustrated with the government. The violence—whipped up by Bhutto’s enemies, especially among religious conservatives—provided an invitation for the military once again to take political control.

The military, humiliated after its defeat by India in 1971, was never friendly toward Bhutto. In 1977, the army stepped in, placed Bhutto under house arrest, and“temporarily” suspended the constitution until order could be restored. Martial law administrator General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had been appointed by Bhutto and who had a reputation as a desk general and thus was politically safe, promised elections would be held as soon as possible. He declared that the military had no desire to remain in power a day longer than necessary.

One of Bhutto’s problems was the accusation that he had been involved in a politically related murder in 1974. This charge provided the opportunity for General Zia to remove Bhutto from the political scene permanently. In December, 1978, Bhutto was convicted. In an effort to add to his political discredit, the government undertook a campaign detailing the misdeeds and oppressive practices of Bhutto’s administration. It came as no surprise when the conviction was upheld by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in February, 1979, given that many of the court’s members were Zia loyalists. Despite public pleas from national leaders around the world, Zia remained resolute in his determination to end Bhutto’s political career. Zia could not free Bhutto because of Bhutto’s large and loyal following. Keeping Bhutto in jail for a long period was also impractical, as this would make him the symbol of military oppression. Zia concluded that for his own political future, the safest thing to do was to execute Bhutto and weather the storm of protest that would surely follow. Bhutto was hanged in the Rawalpindi jail on April 4, 1979.


The immediate consequences of Bhutto’s execution were public protests and demonstrations. Pakistan was already under martial law, so the government needed little justification to suppress political rights. Many members of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party had been arrested before the execution, thus diminishing effective resistance to the government. Nevertheless, political violence continued for some time. The arrest of Bhutto and his subsequent execution, the imposition of martial law, and the suspension of the constitution compromised the political integrity of Pakistan. The arbitrary use of force had once again replaced the rule of law. The justification given for this action—the doctrine of necessity—meant that whenever the military considered it “necessary,” it could nullify any law, including that of the constitution.

By executing Bhutto, General Zia removed the most immediate threat to his political control but created an enduring problem. Bhutto became a martyr and served as the symbol of resistance to government oppression. It was this very resistance that the government used to justify continuing restrictions on political freedoms. When he first seized power in 1977, Zia had promised to restore constitutional government within a matter of months. He instead planned, even before he ordered Bhutto’s execution, to change the system under which the elections, scheduled for November, were to be conducted. In a gesture to fundamentalists, Muslims and non-Muslims were to vote separately. Zia declared that local elections would be held before the general election and on a nonpartisan basis. In August, he issued an ordinance narrowly restricting the ability of political parties to function. In October, he postponed the elections on the grounds that they would not yield positive results. Restoration of democracy, he said, would come eventually, although it might take years.

In the months to follow, martial law was tightened and civil liberties further restricted. Newspapers published issues with large blank spaces to protest censorship. The government accelerated its efforts to bring every activity and institution in Pakistan into conformity with Islam, a process that raised questions about the social and political status of women. Banks were Islamized, which meant the elimination of interest. Instead, banks charged fees for loans and depositors shared in the profits and losses of their banks. The legal system, inherited from the British, was to be reviewed and made consistent with Islamic law. Some forms of public entertainment, such as dancing, films, women’s sports, Western music, and art, were either significantly proscribed or discouraged.

By the mid-1980’s, opposition to Zia’s rule was growing. Open resistance came in the form of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (Pakistan) established in 1981, but it was unsuccessful in changing the course of action under Zia. In 1988, the situation was dramatically altered when General Zia was killed in a plane crash. Elections were held very soon thereafter, and the PPP won a substantial victory and was restored to power. In a dramatic historical twist of fate, the new leader of the government of Pakistan was Bhutto’s daughter Benazir. Not only was a Bhutto once again leading the government of Pakistan, but for the first time in the history of Islam, a woman had been elected to lead a predominantly Muslim country. Pakistan;government
Executions;Zulfikar Ali Bhutto[Bhutto]
Capital punishment

Further Reading

  • Burki, Shahid Javed. Pakistan: Fifty Years of Nationhood. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Provides a comprehensive account of the development of Pakistan, including the events that took place during Bhutto’s regime.
  • _______. Pakistan Under Bhutto. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Detailed study of the political transformation of Pakistan during the Bhutto years. Includes material related to the problems that brought about Bhutto’s downfall.
  • Hayes, Louis D. The Crisis of Education in Pakistan. Lahore, Pakistan: Vanguard Books, 1987. Several chapters discuss the reforms introduced during the Bhutto period and evaluate their subsequent effects. Pays special attention to the increase in educational opportunities for lower-class citizens and for women. Also considers the dismantling of many of these reforms under the Islamization program of General Zia.
  • Raza, Rafi. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan, 1967-1977. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Examines Bhutto’s career and its impacts. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Sayeed, Khalid Bin. Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change. New York: Praeger Special Studies, 1980. Standard work on Pakistan’s political history includes discussion of the rise and fall of Bhutto and the role of Islam in political and constitutional development. Provides detailed examination of the military and its involvement in politics.
  • Talbot, Ian. Pakistan: A Modern History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Discusses the problems that have besieged Pakistan since 1947 and examines the political careers of Zia-ul-Haq, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto. Includes glossary, selected bibliography, and index.

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Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan

Bhutto Becomes the First Woman Elected to Lead a Muslim Country

Musharraf Seizes Power in Pakistan Coup