Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Martial law in Pakistan set the framework for serious abuses of the rights of citizens and political detainees. Publicity of human rights violations sparked international outrage and a growing movement within Pakistan to stand up against Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.

Summary of Event

On July 5, 1977, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, chief of staff of the Pakistani army, deposed the civilian government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup and established martial law throughout Pakistan, declaring himself president and chief martial law administrator. Under martial law, fundamental human rights as specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other internationally recognized agreements were violated frequently. These abuses were widely publicized, especially by Amnesty International Amnesty International and by the Human Rights Society of Pakistan. The report of this latter Pakistani society on the condition and treatment of political detainees played a major role in strengthening indigenous groups, which took a stand against the abuses of Zia’s regime. Opposition was particularly intense concerning Zia’s desire to establish a new political system “true to Islamic principles.” Zia’s efforts at Islamization were intended not only to reduce alien influence but also to liquidate the sophisticated, cosmopolitan elite that had dominated Pakistan since its beginning. A disproportionate number of political detainees whose rights were abrogated were members of this elite. Martial law;Pakistan Pakistan;martial law Human rights abuses;Pakistan Revolutions and coups;Pakistan [kw]Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan (July 5, 1977) [kw]Martial Law in Pakistan, Zia Establishes (July 5, 1977) [kw]Pakistan, Zia Establishes Martial Law in (July 5, 1977) Martial law;Pakistan Pakistan;martial law Human rights abuses;Pakistan Revolutions and coups;Pakistan [g]South Asia;July 5, 1977: Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan[02860] [g]Pakistan;July 5, 1977: Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan[02860] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 5, 1977: Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan[02860] [c]Human rights;July 5, 1977: Zia Establishes Martial Law in Pakistan[02860] Zia-ul-Haq, Mohammad Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Nusrat Khairuddin, Khwaja Qasim, Malik

General Zia suspended the fundamental rights guaranteed by Pakistan’s four-year-old constitution, including freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and movement, and security of citizens against arbitrary arrest and detention. In spite of public promises to hold fair elections, Zia maintained martial law and imprisoned thousands of political opponents in order to consolidate his power. Zia greatly expanded the jurisdiction of military courts at the expense of civilian courts, virtually destroying the latter system. The majority of defendants tried for political offenses were tried by summary military courts, established by Martial Law Order Number 4 of 1977 and given extraordinary powers to impose severe penalties following trials lacking even the most rudimentary elements of procedural fairness. Punishments, according to Islamic law, included death, amputation, life imprisonment, flogging, and confiscation of property.

Under the Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) promulgated on March 14, 1981, no higher court could review or challenge the actions of the martial law authorities or the decisions of the military courts. The PCO suspended all orders made by the superior courts pertaining to decisions of military courts and declared null and void all other decisions addressing the legality of the military government. Article 17 of the PCO provided that judges of the supreme and high courts of Pakistan could not continue to hold their offices unless they swore an oath to abide by the PCO. Some justices of the high courts of Punjab and Baluchistan defied the military regime by overturning military court decisions. The PCO forced those judges who were committed to upholding the 1973 constitution to resign. Nineteen supreme court and provincial high court justices lost their seats on the bench for refusing to take the oath required by the PCO. After these dismissals, judges were appointed only to “acting justice” status, facilitating their removal. Pakistani lawyers of the time stressed that before Zia seized power, no matter how erratic or arbitrary government action was, one always had the opportunity to appeal one’s case or to seek a writ of mandamus or habeas corpus when a lower court or government official acted improperly.

Ordinary Pakistani citizens virtually were prohibited from participating in the political process, since Zia banned all political parties and activities and imposed press censorship. Human rights violations escalated in the early 1980’s, at the same time the United States, under President Ronald Reagan, was providing a $3.2 billion military and economic assistance program to Pakistan.

Arrests under preventive detention provisions were frequent in the early 1980’s. Under martial law, hundreds of politicians, political party workers, lawyers, students, trade unionists, and others were arrested and rearrested on numerous trumped-up charges or on the basis of no charge at all. These arrests generally took place either under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance or under Martial Law Order (MLO) Number 78. The latter provided for indefinite detention without the prisoner being informed of the reason for arrest.

Detainees were held for periods ranging from several days to several years, in spite of the provision that such detainees were to be held for a maximum of ninety days at a time, renewable for a total of one year. Even periods of short detention were associated with a sustained cycle of arrest, release, and rearrest. During detention, torture of prisoners during interrogation was commonplace and severe, including beating, often while the prisoner was suspended from the ceiling. Methods of torture also included applying electric shocks, burning the body with cigarettes, pulling out hairs, subjecting prisoners to continuous loud noise, and depriving prisoners of food and sleep for long periods. People were arrested without their families being notified and were often held incommunicado in solitary confinement. The Human Rights Society of Pakistan reported that seven political detainees died while in captivity during 1982. The U.S. Department of State counted eleven deaths.

Political detainees held after the 1983 protests organized by the umbrella opposition alliance, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (Pakistan) (MRD), were held without formal charges or trials. In February of 1983, the MRD decided to hold a “political prisoner’s day” in Lahore, but its meeting was interrupted by the police, who took attendees into custody. The MRD persisted in demanding a return to civilian government and an end to the arbitrary system of martial law. The Zia regime made a practice of keeping opposition leaders under detention. Lawyers in particular came under attack during Zia’s reign of terror because they continued to argue for the reinstatement of civil law and courts.

Among the police and army agencies named as responsible for the arrest, interrogation, and torture of political prisoners were the Inter-Services Intelligence, the joint intelligence unit of the three armed forces, under the control of the federal government; the Field Intelligence Unit, an army intelligence agency regularly cited as conducting arrests; the Special Branch attached to the provincial police; and the Federal Intelligence Agency. Of particular cruelty was the use of flogging to punish political detainees. During the 1977-1981 period, hundreds of political prisoners were flogged, prisoners accused of nonviolent crimes. In addition, the death penalty was imposed on a great number of political prisoners. As of March, 1982, it was reported that 1,350 prisoners in Punjab were under sentence of death.


The publication of reports by Amnesty International, the Human Rights Society of Pakistan, and the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights in the early 1980’s signaled a growing movement within both Pakistan and the international community to stand up against abuses of human rights being perpetrated under Zia’s martial law regime. The reports put pressure on Zia to call elections by 1985. The reports also put pressure on the Reagan administration to make U.S. assistance conditional on the reinstatement of civil law in Pakistan. Reports of brutality and violation of rights ultimately led to the demise of Zia’s regime and to the political victory of Benazir Bhutto.

The open publicity of the human rights violations created an international context within which Zia’s major opponents could maneuver more effectively. One of the major groups included the politicized intelligentsia, especially lawyers. The bar associations, particularly vexed at Zia’s imposition of Islamic law, organized numerous demonstrations in defiance of martial law. The lawyers were especially concerned that Zia’s institution of courts of qadis, Islamic clerics who would administer justice on the basis of Islamic codes, would eliminate lawyers trained in English common law and destroy the independence of the judicial system.

The lawyers continued to obtain international support against Zia and to oppose all of his legal reforms. The All-Pakistan Lawyers Convention met in Lahore in October, 1982, with the stated purpose of criticizing the government program. In spite of numerous arrests, the lawyers continued to be some of the most outspoken opponents of the government. The Punjabi bar association demanded the withdrawal of the Provisional Constitutional Order of 1981 and the repeal of all laws, orders, and regulations which barred or curtailed the jurisdiction of the superior courts. They observed a symbolic two-hour strike protesting the military junta’s denial of civil liberties and the discarding of the rule of law.

The politicization of the intelligentsia entered a new phase as Malik Qasim, chairman of the MRD, accused the government of fabricating a case against the movement in order to justify arresting members. Qasim declared that thousands of MRD supporters had been arrested and were wasting away in prison. More and more professional associations declared that they would no longer remain apolitical and began to openly renounce the Zia government, thus further pressuring both Zia and his international allies, such as the United States, to begin to show some semblance of justice. Martial law;Pakistan Pakistan;martial law Human rights abuses;Pakistan Revolutions and coups;Pakistan

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amnesty International USA. Pakistan Violations of Human Rights. New York: Author, 1985. Summarizes the human rights violations taking place in Pakistan in the early 1980’s, including the treatment of political detainees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arif, K. M. Khaki Shadows: Pakistan 1947-1997. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001. Focuses on the dominant role of the army in the political arena in Pakistan. Written by a retired general who had a position in the martial law regimes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Working with Zia: Pakistan Power Politics, 1977-1988. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1995. An insider’s account of the Zia regime by the man who served as Zia’s chief of staff for seven years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blood, Peter R., ed. Pakistan: A Country Study. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1995. Study intended to aid foreign service officers assigned to Pakistan includes coverage of the development of politics in that nation and Zia’s regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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 under Zia’s martial law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenberg, Deborah M. Justice in Pakistan. New York: Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, 1983. Summarizes the abuses that took place in Pakistan under Zia’s military rule, especially during the period 1981-1983, which was particularly notorious.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naqvi, Jamal, Shaukat Ali, and Farz Ali. Inside Pakistan. New Delhi: Patriot, 1986. Presents a Marxist analysis of the ruling elite in Pakistan and the “revolution” of the people seeking basic human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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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