1979: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan

In the small hours of the morning this date, the Pakistani military junta hanged former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

At the end of 1971, Bhutto, a former cabinet official who had broken with Pakistan’s military strongman, rode a wave of discontent into power as the economy crumbled, and East Pakistan broke away from Islamabad to form Bangladesh.

Born to a well-heeled Muslim family in British India, the charismatic and often arrogant Bhutto had feets in the streets and a way with both the domestic audience and the global one:

But he did not necessarily have a power bloc equal to the weight of the Pakistani military as he navigated the storm of controversial domestic challenges; in retrospect, it seems only a matter of time before his hold on power would slip.

In July 1977, Army Chief of Staff Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a fellow clan member whom Bhutto had promoted ahead of more senior officers, repaid his sponsor by overthrowing him in a virtually bloodless coup.

A protracted — and vengeful — legal drama with a pre-scripted ending unfolded over the ensuing two years, with Bhutto twice released and twice re-arrested, convicted of an earlier political murder on the testimony of “witnesses” who had obviously been tortured and coached, and his sentence upheld by a divided Supreme Court gamed to avoid the presence of a pro-Bhutto judge.

It was not out of character for this affair that the fallen Prime Minister was hanged secretly and before he expected, his (widely protested) death not announced until the following morning.

Allegories of Bhutto and Zia struggle for power in this early Salman Rushdie novel (more).

Bhutto makes a flawed saint, but his turn at power stands as an island of something like democracy in a sea of Cold War Pakistani dictatorships.

The Pakistan Peoples Party he founded still remains a principle organ of liberalism in Pakistan, and still honors its martyred leader. Reflective of both the vision and the personal autocracy of its progenitor, its leadership has passed dynastically through Bhutto family members, most famously daughter Benazir Bhutto, who succeeded Gen. Zia (he died in a suspicious plane crash) as Prime Minister — the first female elected head of state in the Islamic world.

Benazir Bhutto, of course, was assassinated this past December, just ahead of parliamentary elections that have just now produced a coalition government that will vie with Islamabad’s most recent military ruler for power.

The website bhutto.org preserves a considerable collection of the elder Bhutto’s writings, as well as photography, video and other resources.

On this day..