Pakistan's seven supreme court judges agreed today to consider a last-minute request for a stay of execution for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, thus allowing his lawyers time to prepare a full review petition -- the last legal door open to them in their attempts to save the former prime minister.
Early Wednesday morning the supreme court stayed the execution for 10 days, according to news services. The hanging was originally scheduled for Thursday. The court said it would hold a formal hearing on Feb. 24 to decide whether to admit a defense petition challenging Bhutto's conviction of attempted murder.
Bhutto's counsel, Yahya Bakhtiar, today filed a prelimininary "short petition" -- 97 pages of legal argument -- with the Supreme Court, asserting that the four judges who upheld Bhutto's conviction on a charge of attempted murder had blundered.
"There are numerous grave and serious instances of misreading of evidence on the record, misappreciation of facts and misapplication of law, resulting in a grave miscarriage of justice," Bakhtiar said in his brief.
Bakhtiar claimed the majority judgment had done away with the cardinal principle of criminal justice -- that the prosecution must prove its case beyond all reasonable doubt.
The Supreme Court a week ago upheld a lower court conviction of Bhutto, Pakistan's leading political figure for nearly a decade, and four codefendants. Defendants can petition the nation's highest court to review its own judgment during a 30-day period.
Prosecution lawyers have already filed a caveat with the Supreme Court, giving notice that they will oppose the defense review petition.
Meanwhile, Bhutto's wife and daughter, who had been kept under house arrest here, have been moved to a police camp 15 miles south of Rawalpindi and out of the public gaze.
Pressure is building on Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, to grant clemency to Bhutto if the judges refuse to deviate from their position.
The latest in a series of appeals came from Pakistan's former president, Fazal Ellahi Chaudhry, whose term of office expired last September when Zia assumed the presidency.
Chaudhry had come to Rawalpindi from Lahore in the hope of seeing Zia. The fact that Zia had no time for the former president who did much to legitimize the military regime is taken here as an indication of Zia's unwillingness to be budged on the Bhutto issue.
In a letter, Chaudhry said: "With the situation in the neighboring countries being what it is, Pakistan is in danger of being engulfed in a very unhappy predicament. Any event with some political and emotional content can trigger off the process. The execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto can provide much more than a detonation. The subdued reaction can become vocal and ultimately turn militantly violent. The resultant chaos will certainly fulfill the wishes of national enemies."
Chaudhry said killing Bhutto was bound to strain "the body and soul of the federation." Three judges had given Bhutto a straightforward acquittal, he said, adding, "This fact alone is bound to raise grave misgivings in the minds of the general public about the reasonableness of implementing the capital punishment."
Chaudhry then dealt with one of the most sensitive issues in Pakistan today -- the "unfortunate coincidence" that the four supreme court judges who upheld Bhutto's death sentence all came from the Punjab, while the three who acquitted him were from Pakistan's smaller, less influential provinces.
Chaudhry said that "the head of state who is the symbol of the unity of the country must take note of it, and it is for him to reconcile both points of view to some extent by tempering justice with mercy, in the exercise of his constitutional prerogative. Such an action can in no way detract from the validity of the majority verdict."
At the moment, the security situation in Pakistan remains relatively quiet. Some arrests of Bhutto supporters are still being made by police. Thousands are reported to have been detained under martial law regulations in the swoop which began three days before the Supreme Court delivered its judgement.
There were three minor bomb incidents reported yesterday.