It was not braggadocio when the haggard man from the tiny death cell of Rawalpindi central jail told a courtroom weeks ago: “More than my life is at stake. The future of Pakistan is at stake.” That assessment seemed to have gained rather than lost weight last week as an appeal court confirmed the death sentence on its author, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for plotting to kill a political opponent.
The news of the verdict was met with demonstrations across the country in support of the once-suave, jet-setting leader who had turned a face of Pakistani urbanity to the world during his tenure from 1971 to 1977. “If he is given death, Pakistan will be converted into another Iran,” predicted one worker in Bhutto’s People’s Party. And indeed there was an echo of the uncompromising Moslem rectitude of Ayatollah Khomeini in both the sentence on Bhutto and the expected weekend announcement by Pakistan’s President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq of stringent new Islamic laws for the country.
Earlier, as if anticipating trouble, Zia had jailed hundreds of Bhutto’s supporters before the appeal court’s decision-including former senators and members of Parliament.
Although Bhutto’s hanging seemed
probable last week—Zia will not grant clemency, nor Bhutto request it—it seemed just as clear that Zia was making trouble for himself. The same charisma and popular support that would have made Bhutto a troublesome prisoner or worrisome exile may well make him a popular martyr to democracy and the focal point of rebellion since he continues to enjoy widespread support, especially among the underprivileged masses who saw in him a measure of concern for their troubles.
More sophisticated Pakistanis who oppose Bhutto revile him for the corruption and oppression of his rule, and have little doubt that his conviction for plotting a murder points up not the least of his crimes. But even they admit that the hard-driving prime minister, through long hours and electrifying speeches, rallied national morale after the humiliating 1971 defeat by India and, further, that despite the severe economic setback of Bangladesh’s secession at that time, he coaxed the economy back to health—before the devastation of the 1973 oil price increases.
Even for a volatile people, the emotions surrounding Bhutto’s case are striking unusually intense sparks. But neither the dissent at home nor the appeals for clemency from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, from Washington and from other foreign capitals have moved the spit-and-polish, British-trained Zia who makes no secret of his contempt for Bhutto and for the “ghastly and horrible crimes” of his days in power. But, for all his faults, Bhutto never planned a killing as shady as the execution of a former prime minister after a dubious trial—the key testimony came from the boss of Bhutto’s secret police, who confessed only after spending two months in police custody and getting immunity from prosecution.
Even if Zia can maintain civil order at home, the execution would come with Pakistan’s economy in trouble and the government trying to reschedule payments on its foreign debt ($7.5 billion) with the World Bank. But members of that international consortium are already loath to comply, and Bhutto’s death could strengthen their objections. In any case, Zia’s tattered banner of legitimacy would be stripped bare, what with his long-promised election steadily receding and political prisoners in jail.
In its troubled 31 years’ existence, Pakistan has had three military takeovers and 13 years of rule by martial law. Twice before, military leaders have retired in infamy, and observers are recommending a similar course for Zia—to exile Bhutto and let his party take its chances in an election. His decision is crucial—the future of Pakistan may well be at stake. Michael Clugston
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