World

The hangman now faces the crowd

Peter Niesewand April 16 1979
World

The hangman now faces the crowd

Peter Niesewand April 16 1979

The hangman now faces the crowd

World

If last week’s hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was meant to settle matters, the signs were that it would not. The former Pakistani prime minister’s execution set off widespread demonstrations; in one, 1,000 women in Rawalpindi defied the country’s martial law regulations and shouted for revenge against its military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq. And despite the authorities’ promise to get rough with protesters, all signs pointed to an increase in violence in the run-up to free elections promised for November—a replay in reverse of the tempest of public disapproval which brought down Bhutto after the 1977 polling he was widely thought to have rigged.

There were some in Pakistan who considered Bhutto to have been a cruel, arrogant dandy who surrounded himself with sycophants and thugs and deserved all he got. For them his final ordeal may have brought satisfaction of a sort. But for anyone else the catalogue of humiliation meted out by the military authorities to Bhutto in his death cell made him a pathetic figure.

In the months leading up to his execution he was made to sleep on the concrete floor of his cell in Rawalpindi jail, which is infested by ants. He was not allowed to use the toilet; instead guards gave him a chamber pot which was rarely emptied, so visitors came away nauseated by the stench. Bhutto had an acute gum disease. But his keepers confiscated his medicine, his gums turned black, he began coughing up

blood and was hardly able to eat.

Hours before the execution, when Bhutto was permitted a final meeting with his second wife, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, and his daughter Benazir, 25,— both of whom are under house arrest— the authorities would not open the cell door. Bhutto’s wife and daughter held his hands and kissed him farewell through the bars. Later their application to attend the funeral was turned down, and they were not permitted to see Bhutto’s body—an important factor in Islamic burials.

The hanging was as furtive as his incarceration was humiliating. Executions in Pakistan—and there have been about 400 since Zia overthrew Bhutto in 1977—are usually carried out at dawn. But the black warrant served on Bhutto, setting the date 'for his punishment for allegedly conspiring to murder a political opponent in 1974, laid down 2 a.m. Wednesday as the time. Armed troops moved in at midnight, surrounding the jail and arresting journalists they found watching the activity. (Later, foreign correspondents were hampered by airline officials who refused to ship out their film of the riots, or to sell them plane tickets to other cities hit by riots.)

Before being led off to the scaffold, Bhutto was allowed to write a will (later destroyed) and was given a bath and some verses from the Koran to read. Then he was led away, as fellow prisoners chanted from the holy book. His last recorded words, before the trap was sprung: “Oh Lord help me, for I am innocent.”

News of the hanging stunned many Pakistanis. Employees in government offices wept openly and one elderly woman was overheard to snap: “This is the most disgraceful day in Pakistan’s history.” World leaders, many of whom, like Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, had repeatedly called for clemency, were quick to condemn the act. One of the few dissenters was Haider Khan, president of the Canadian Federation of Pakistani Associations. The former prime minister’s death, he said, would set an example to politicians—“if they misuse the powers of state, they should be prepared for the consequences.”

But those words had a double-edged ring. As Bhutto’s plain wooden coffin was lowered into the walled cemetery of the remote provincial hamlet where he had been born 51 years earlier, it seemed to many they might apply equally to his executioner—General Zia ul-Haq. Peter Niesewand