By Iftikhar Ali
UNITED NATIONS – “The conditions are so unbearable that on two occasions I was compelled to go on hunger strikes to protect my honour,” former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said in a grimly-worded telegram addressed to the then UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, from his 6×9-foot death row cell in Rawalpindi jail.
Dated 20 September 1978, Bhutto handed over the telegram to the jail superintendent for transmission to UN Headquarters in New York. Of course, the telegram was never sent. Days later. Begum Nusrat Bhutto found out that Waldheim, a family friend, never received it. She then instructed her son, Murtaza Bhutto, who was in London, to fly to New York and deliver it to the U.N. chief personally. Murtaza sought an appointment and, despite the secretary-general busy schedule during the ongoing session of the U.N.General Assembly, he agreed to meet him on 23 October 1978.
The appointment given to Murtaza, who was then 24-year-old, was meant to be a gesture of moral support for the incarcerated leader from the world’s top diplomat and a public signal to military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq against his not-so-veiled threats to hang him. In a departure from the usual practice, the meeting was set in the 38th floor office where the secretary-general receives heads of state/government, top government officials and diplomats. Murtaza was not a government official, he represented some who was, in fact, under fire from the regime of a member state.
To be fair, Waldheim informed the then Pakistani Ambassador Niaz Naik about his decision to meet Murtaza. When Naik communicated it to Islamabad, he was immediately instructed to seek cancellation of the meeting on the ground that Bhutto was a convicted murderer and that his supporters would exploit it to their advantage. But the secretary-general, who had repeatedly appealed for clemency for Bhutto, stood his ground, saying he was driven by his humanitarian concerns.
As correspondent of Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), I came to know of the appointment a week before it was to take place. One afternoon, I found Naik, looking a bit disturbed, sitting in a corner of the Delegate Lounge. At first he seemed reluctant, but then on ‘off-the-record’ basis he told me the whole story. He said he really didn’t want to, but had to request the SG not to meet Murtaza. But Waldheim argued that Bhutto was a highly respected, internationally known statesman and he not only knew him but his family members as well. Naik said the GHQ doesn’t under this and he was under constant pressure.
On my part, I checked with the then UN Spokesman Francois Guiliani, who confirmed the meeting. I filed a story to APP, quoting the spokesman — to save the ambassador — but the press was under heavy censorship in those martial law days and it was not released.
Finally, Murtaza, accompanied by Ghulam Mustafa Khar, met the secretary-general on the appointed date for 30 minutes. Afterwards, Murtaza distributed copies of the telegram and some of his statements to the international journalists waiting in the lobby and briefed them about his meeting. Again not a word was published in the censored Pakistani media.
Bhutto wrote in the telegram, “As yet another session of the General Assembly convenes in New York to discuss the issues of war and peace and presumably human rights, it must know that the elected leader of Pakistan is being subjected to brutal hardship ever since the coup d’état
of July 5, 1977.
“By now friend and foe alike know that a false murder case has been fabricated against me in which I have been in solitary confinement for over a year and in a miserable death cell for over six months in appalling conditions. I am not receiving proper medical treatment although I am urgently in need of it. …
“My wife was shamelessly attacked and injured on December 16, 1977 at Lahore Gaddafi Stadium. Since January 1978 she has been in detention and solitary confinement. My young daughter was also under house arrest for over six months. My three younger children and a number of close party comrades are in virtual exile. Party leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party and our workers are in jails by the thousands. Along with journalists, they have been mercilessly whipped in public.
“To silence the working classes the labourers of Multan were savagely killed in January this year. The conscience of the world community gets aroused when the representative of a firm is arrested for alleged black marketing of currency but what happens to the same world community when the undisputed leader of his people is subjected to physical cruelty and mental torture for inter-alia waging a dauntless struggle against oppression, for valiantly upholding the banner of justice for the Third World and for equipping an Islamic state with a nuclear capability? …
“I would request you to circulate this message to the debonair diplomats at the current session of the General Assembly.
“Relevant world leaders are aware of the documentary evidence as to why my life hangs in the balance. This unimpeachable evidence of the last 14 years will show them beyond doubt that my blood, if it spills, will surely stain their hands and that in history they will owe me a debt of blood.
Yours truly, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto”
(The reference “to black marketing of currency” in the telegram was about the arrest of an American businessman in Moscow in the summer of 1978 accused of the financial crime and U.S/-led West’s campaign to seek his release. The reference to “documentary evidence” seems to be the comprehensive affidavit Bhutto submitted to the Supreme Court.)
Bhutto was a popular figure at the United Nations, as a brilliant diplomats and an orator, whose 1957 inputs in the work of Assembly’s Sixth (Legal) Committee are frequently cited. A couple of weeks before his April 4 ,1979 execution, many UN diplomats, especially from the third world, were meeting Waldheim requesting him to save Bhutto’s life. One of Bhutto’s admirers, Zehidi Labib Terzi of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came to my 3rd floor office in the UN building and told me — with tears in his eyes — that they were now convinced that he would be executed. He said he had just met Waldheim to convey of PLO’s fears. Similar views were also conveyed by Nordic diplomats and the air at the U.N. became charged with heightened concern over Bhutto’s fate.
In that atmosphere, I also felt the urge to do something. I sought an appointment for a press interview with the secretary-general through his spokesman, Guiliani, a friend of mine. He asked me what my interview would be about and I said it has been long time since I met the SG and I wanted to ask him some general questions. The interview was fixed for April 2, 1979. What I had thought of doing was to ask him my questions and then make an appeal for Bhutto. It was something very irregular for a journalist but I really felt like doing it. As I entered his office, Waldheim greeted me, saying, “Well, young man I have only 15 minutes … shoot!”. Something happened to me at that time and I decided to dispense with my questions — I was in no mood any way — and decided to put it straight to him, “Sir, I hope you will excuse me. I am not going to ask you any question. As a citizen of Pakistan, I thank you for your efforts to save Mr. Bhutto’s life and I
wanted to add my voice … as his execution would do immense damage to my country.” Waldheim looked straight into my eyes with his eyebrows raised as he rose from his chair. He picked up his phone and whispered something into it as he headed towards the door and asked me to follow him. I missed a couple of heartbeats thinking that he was going to throw me out. But as we stepped out of the door and into the corridor, Waldheim said he appreciated that I had come to him on this matter. Meanwhile, his secretary joined us carrying a file with a blue cover. He showed me a cable he had sent earlier in the day (April 2) instructing the chief of UNMOGIP, the UN military observer mission, to deliver his urgent message for clemency to the president personally. I read the cable as also some other cables he had sent soon after Bhutto was sentenced to death. There were also cables from some heads of state/government and his replies to them. He stood with me for
about 5 to 6 minutes. “I have done my very best… this is as much as I can do.” I again thanked him profusely returning his file as he warmly shook hands. But till today, I haven’t been to figure out why he wanted to show the file in the corridor!
The writer is an acclaimed Pakistani journalist. As correspondent for the Associated Press of Pakistan, Ali covered the era of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and has unique insight into many historic developments.
The picture in the post is published courtesy All Things Pakistan