On December 12, Pakistan’s top court will convene a nine-member bench to review the 44-year-old death sentence handed down controversially to former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, just two months before national elections. Filed by Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s son-in-law and then-president, a presidential reference in June 2011 sought a review of the 1979 death penalty, making Bhutto the only former prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be hanged. Bhutto, a prominent politician and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, faced a tumultuous tenure, leading to his removal in 1977 and subsequent arrest on charges related to a political rival’s murder.
The reopening of the case in 2011 was prompted by longstanding questions about the trial’s fairness and procedural flaws. Despite Bhutto’s execution, the 1979 verdict has not been cited as a precedent in Pakistan’s judicial history. Zardari’s reference aimed to seek the top court’s opinion on the legality of the decision, raising five legal questions. While hearings were conducted until November 2012, they ceased with a change in the Supreme Court bench.
The decision to revisit the reference now is seen by analysts as potentially unrelated to the upcoming general elections but rather as an opportunity for the court to address historical concerns. Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who has publicly condemned the 1979 judgment, may play a crucial role in rectifying what some consider a “judicial murder.” Lahore-based lawyer Abid Saqi sees the reference as an opportunity for the judiciary to reverse past decisions and restore the sanctity of legal principles.
The significance of the court’s decision extends beyond the legal realm, addressing historical mistakes and potentially setting a precedent against military intervention in political matters. Political analyst Mehmal Sarfraz emphasizes the importance of the judiciary rectifying past errors that have influenced Pakistan’s political landscape. A reversal of the 1979 verdict, though unable to bring Bhutto back, holds the potential to restore the legitimacy of legal institutions and challenge the military’s oversized role in politics.