Former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan is in jail in Rawalpindi today, waiting for a final court decision on his life. Bhutto was convicted by a lower court in 1977 following an investigation that charged him with having caused the 1974 murder of the father of his political rival Raza Kasuri.

In the event Bhutto's conviction is upheld, he could be hanged Monday. Gen. Mohammed Zia, head of the current military government of Pakistan, can grant executive amnesty, or he may commute the sentence to life imprisonment. I would hope that he would consider one of these two alternatives.

Amnesty is probably not a viable strategic choice for Zia, Bhutto enjoys enormous popular support in Pakistan. Even his worst enemies agree that Bhutto would win in any national election. Bhutto's release is a prospect that Zia cannot entertain.

I would urge commutation for four reasons. The first is tangible -- that is, the great risk of civil war and the certainty of violence and turmoil that would follow Bhutto's execution. The majority of Pakistan's population supports Bhutto. His followers have already involved themselves in significant acts of protest. Several men have publicly immolated themselves in demonstrations for his cause. Feelings are strong. As we saw in Iran, even the most powerful military is hard pressed to control a large population so committed to a single cause.

My second reason is humanitarian. Bhutto is essentially a political prisoner. He has had an incalculable effect on the lives of everyone in his country over the past decade.

When Pakistan was demoralized and in shambles following the loss of its 1971 war with India, Bhutto was his nation's Churchill, strongly and energetically lifting his country from its knees. He inspired Pakistan with his words, ingeniously put its industry and its economy back into working order, restored its military strength, and brilliantly negotiated with India for lost land and prisoners of war. Mao once called him the most brilliant political leader in the world outside China. Bhutto's power as a head of government left no one unimpressed.

Regardless of the independence of Pakistan's judiciary -- and its inviolability is celebrated -- it is simply unrealistic to believe that even the most aloof of the justices can view his case on its own merits with any objectivity. This point is made clear when we look at the decisions of the separate jurists in terms of their geographical origins. The four justices who voted against Bhutto's case are upper-class Punjabis. Of all the classes in Pakistan, wealthy Punjabis were among those most adversely affected by Bhutto's regime. His land-reform programs and his politicization of the rural masses were directed against that region. The elite of the Punjabis lost power and property. The three justices who believed Bhutto had proved his innocence came from areas that have been more supportive of Bhutto (as did the two justices who were dismissed during the trial).

My third reason is that hanging Bhutto will set a bad precedent. Since partition in 1948, Pakistan has puzzled over what to do with its leaders once it is through with them. Those who refused to step down gracefully or in exchange for a house in the country have been assassinated, jailed, discredited or overthrown and exiled by the military. It is not in the best interests of any country to adopt a habit of executing its leaders. It's too easy a solution for Pakistan and one that can be used over and over again. The deterrent effect of this alone on good men from entering the political sphere will make this country suffer from such a simple solution.

My fourth reason is more ethereal. Pakistan is in a stage of confusion and emotional turmoil. In times like these, it is hard to view any cause of contention objectively. A falling leader may be seen only from his darker side. The greed, the lust for power, the most venemous aspects of his character dominate the vision. This is especially so when he still seems to pose a threat. I don't presume to instruct the people or the leaders of Pakistan on how to conduct their internal affairs. I speak from a country far away and with very little knowledge of the causes and complaints of the Pakistani people. I can only beg that those who rule over Bhutto's life will, for a moment, step back and consider the whole picture.

The other day a Pakistani friend told me, "Pakistan cannot afford a president Ali Bhutto." This may be true. But I asked this man, and I ask Gen. Zia, to remember Pakistan at the time of its humiliation and defeat. Remember the Ali Bhutto who guided it through its tribulations, who helped restore its economic life and the security of its borders and who gave the country a broad voice and gained back for Pakistan its dignity and respect in the eyes of the world. No matter how odious the vision to some in these times, there are many people both in Pakistan and throughout the world who think of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as a founding father of new Pakistan. History, too, may well regard him in that light. It is when one thinks of Bhutto as the father of his country that the implications of hanging him become most disturbing.