top of page

Murtaza Bhutto

Murtaza Bhutto would like to make one thing quite clear. He is not a cannibal. “For years I have been portrayed in my own country as a subhuman monster. People think I eat babies for breakfast.”


Indeed, when I see him at his home in Karachi, he is eating only boiled yellow rice while everyone else around the table tucks into chicken. He explains that he is rather ill. “I have a high fever and an upset stomach because I have been constantly campaigning in the rain.”


Bhutto, the estranged brother of Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, returned to the country last year after almost 16 years in exile, mostly in Syria. He was thrown straight into prison for suspected terrorist activities against the military dictatorship that toppled his father, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, from power and subsequently hanged him. “I was a freedom fighter not a terrorist,” he says firmly.


Released on bail in June, he has not even unpacked his black prison bag: “Of course I keep opening it to fish things out, but that’s all I’ve had time for.” He has spent every waking moment trying to drum up political support and attending court hearings. He faces 80 charges of terrorism, each one carrying the death penalty. 


“Oh, I don’t know..” he sighs wearily when I ask him to elaborate on the charges, “..sedition, hijacking, murder, all sorts of things.”


Bhutto certainly does not seem like a terrorist. He has great charisma and is effusively polite. He also lacks the arrogance which has become a Bhutto hallmark. A tall, good-looking man, he sits in his impeccable navy suit, cream shirt and tasseled shoes, fishing lemon pips out of his drink and gesticulating with a crisp. Tunic-clad jiyalas, or supporters, wander in and out of the room, whispering. 


His house, situated in a smart residential district, is easily identifiable; a colourful hoarding of a larger-than-life Murtaza has been erected on the pavement opposite. Family retainers sit in plastic orange chairs along the concrete path, some of them playing cards, their Kalashnikovs propped within easy reach.


The house itself has an air of faded glory, with well-worn carpets and heavy, off-yellow curtains. People loll around in the hallway, chatting softly with an air of expectancy. The press secretary explains: “They are waiting to see if they can get a glimpse, just one glimpse, of Murtaza.”


He ushers me through to the living quarters where portraits of the family line the walls and framed photographs stand six or seven deep on every table. No picture of Benazir is in evidence. A gold-sheathed sword is suspended above the door of the sitting-room. There is a strangely oppressive feeling, for although it is a dazzlingly sunny day, no natural light is allowed to penetrate the rooms.


Bhutto had not seen the house since his father, who founded the Pakistan People’s Party and became the country’s first democratically elected leader, was ousted in 1977 by the military dictator, General Zia. In retaliation, Bhutto and his younger brother, Shahnawaz, formed the Al-Zulfiquar organisation aimed at fighting the oppressive regime. The group’s most spectacular act was the hijacking of a plane, leading to the inadvertent killing of a passenger. Bhutto insists that he did not order the hijacking and, once aware of it, intervened to try to resolve the situation peacefully.


Although General Zia died in 1988, Bhutto must still answer the charges against him. “My sister’s democratic Government is pursuing cases made in martial law against me,” he says bitterly. 


He adds that he was only freed from his rat-infested cell because the authorities were afraid that he was gaining too much sympathy for his plight. “They realized that if they couldn’t convict me, they shouldn’t make a hero out of me. Others said: ‘Let him go, people will be interested at first but the balloon will soon deflate.’” Which is more of less what happened. Although people turned out in their thousands at his first rallies, political observers maintain that this was largely out of curiosity. 


No one is quite sure what Bhutto wants. Benazir views him as a political menace who is seeking power for himself. He claims he simply wants to “strengthen her hand” but says he expects certain reforms, including the expulsion from the party of those who served under General Zia. He adds that he has a political agenda aimed at improving the country’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, according to one Karachi newspaper, he has a one-point programme: “To make life miserable for his sister”.


At the moment his political clout is minimal. Even though he was a candidate for nine constituencies during the elections which returned his sister to power last year, he only won one seat - and that was in his home town of Larkana. He claims, justly, that it was hard to campaign while living in Damascus and adds, perhaps not so justly, that Benazir deliberately turned people against him. 


It appears to be a classic story of sibling rivalry, exacerbated by their mother, who shuttles between brother and sister, denouncing Benazir as a “viper in her bosom” one day and lunching with her the next.


She is here today swathed in pink beaded chiffon, tears springing to her eyes whenever the feud is mentions.


“I went to my husband’s grave the other day,” she says, reaching for the box of paper tissues on the table, “and I cried and I said, ‘Look what your daughter has done to me.’” I say that they always appear to be close. Begum Nusrat Bhutto shakes her head: “She’s always in a hurry. She just sits with me for two or three minutes and if I want to talk, she says: ‘Mummy, can’t you see, I’m working.’” 


She becomes more composed when she talks about Murtaza: “He is very much like me: he’s very calm, he’s very cool and he’s very highly educated.” So is Benazir, I saw. (Both brother and sister were educated at Harvard and Oxford.) “Yes, she is, but Murtaza got an honors form Harvard, which Benazir didn’t get.” 


Their mother blames herself for bestowing far more attention on Benazir than Murtaza when they were children. “She was my first-born and I didn’t have much time for him. All the time I was looking after her and really he was neglected. He was a very quiet boy.”


She seems to be making up for lost time now, lavishing gifts and support upon her son. Bhutto, who has finished his lunch, comes into the room and thanks his mother for the gold cufflinks and piece of Berlin Wall she has brought him from Germany. They plan the afternoon journey to Lahore for a court case in which Bhutto is charged with conspiracy. 


Even his marital life has not been without turbulence. He and his brother, Shahnawaz, married Afghan sisters. Shahnawaz died in France of suspected poisoning and Shahnawaz’ wife was charged with not aiding a dying person. Relations soured between Murtaza and his own wife and they divorced. He looks after their daughter, 12-year-old Fatima, and having now remarried, also has a son Zulfiquar, aged four. 


Bhutto, 40, remembers his own childhood as a happy time, although he says Benazir was always very aloof. “We were brought up with a strict sense of morality.” He adds, chuckling: “I don’t know how Benazir has forgotten all that.”


Despite the constant sniping at his sister, he says he still respects the “heroic role” she played against the army dictatorship and is prepared to forgive her for the sake of the party. “I do not mind that she put me in prison and did not let me see my family. I can even forgive her for manipulating the judiciary against me.”


Some people might view that as an admission of guilt, I suggest cautiously. His smile disappears and his eyebrows beetle together as he bangs the arm of the sofa. “No! I am just being magnanimous, for God’s sake.” 


But too magnanimous, it seems. He adopts a softer stance and quietly explains that the stakes are too high. “I grew up in this party. I do not want it harmed and divided, so I am prepared to make concessions.”


There is one further element to this conflict which makes it even more confusing. It has been suggested that brother and sister are merely affecting enmity so as not to damage the Government while the court cases are pending. Bhutto is dismissive when I put this to him. He says it is one of his sister’s tactics to make people fearful of turning against her. “Her supporters say: ‘Don’t commit yourself to Murtaza because tomorrow the brother and sister will be together and you will be left high and dry.’”


If the feud is a sham, it seems they are both shooting themselves in the foot. For if the relationships within the Bhutto family cannot be taken at face value, what does this say about their pledges to the people? As it is, there is a growing feeling in the country that the Bhutto dynasty may have had its day. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader who came to power after Benazir’s first administration, is again looking strong. 


I ask Bhutto if his ultimate goal is to become Prime Minister. His diplomatic answer is worthy of any politician: “I would accept the responsibility if it was given to me.”


What would be his goal as leader of the country? By way of answer, he picks up an armful of today’s newspapers lying next to him and jabs his finger at the headlines. “Look at this. ‘Two shot dead’, ‘Body found in mosque’, ‘Gutters overflow’, ‘City stinks’. The Government doesn’t care; it is just busy making money for itself. Property is not safe, life is not safe.”


He says that the situation can only be solved by drastic measures, in some cases even the death penalty. These do not sound like the words of a democrat, I say. He nods. “I know. But for a limited amount of time we’ll have to use savage measures to counter savages. We’ll have to use shock therapy.” 


So what sort of people deserve the death sentence? “Monsters who rape little children, people involved in corruption…” he replies and pauses. What about terrorists, I ask? The men in the room exchange glances and chuckle drily. Bhutto looks me straight in the eye and nods: “Yes, and terrorists. Definitely terrorists.”


As published in The Sunday Telegraph 27 November 1994. Murtaza Bhutto was shot dead outside his home in 1996.

bottom of page