Pakistan's Supreme Court this morning refused to reconsider its rejection of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's appeal of his death sentence in a murder conspiracy case.
The court's decision left Bhutto with but one avenue to escape the gallows, a clemency ruling by the country's military ruler Zia ul-Haq -- something Zia has said he would not offer.
The court's decision followed by a day an announcement by Zia that he would turn over power to an elected civilian government after national elections on Nov. 17.
The combination of national elections and a resolution of the Bhutto case, which has been before the courts for months, is likely to thrust Pakistan into a prolonged period of unrest at a time of upheaval in the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Iran.
Tension is certain to increase in the seven days allowed for the filing of a clemency appeal.
The court added pressure of its own today by saying that, while it upheld its earlier decision on narrow technical grounds, it had been shown evidence that might have swayed its earlier decision had that evidence been presented during the original appeal.
The seven judges urged that those facts would still be "relevant for consideration by the executive authorities in the excercise of their power for clemency." How Zia will handle this new development in the complex case is unclear.
Zia has consistently said he would abide by the decision of the court and send the former prime minister to the hangman if the judges upheld earlier opinions. He has stood firm despite appeals for mercy from a large number of world leaders, including President Carter, Saudi Arabia's King Khalid, British Prime Minister James Callaghan and China's Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-ping).
Zia's announcement of elections brings Pakistani politics full circle. It was massive political unrest that brought the army to power 20 months ago in a coup that toppled Bhutto. Bhutto and his Pakistan People's Party had won an overwhelming victory in elections in March 1977, sparking widespread charges that the vote was rigged.
"The promise that the armed forces made one and a half years ago has been fulfilled today," Zia said in announcing the elections after a military parade marking Pakistan's national day.
Zia made it clear, however, that the military would not stand by during a chaotic political campaign and said a code of conduct would be announced.
Debate on three subjects would not be tolerated, he said: the country's Islamic ideology, the federal parliamentary structure and the question of provincial autonomy. All three are contentious issues in Pakistan's political spectrum.
He also hinted that he would propose constitutional revisions giving greater powers to the president as a balance to the prime minister.
The timing of Zia's election announcement yesterday raised immediate speculation as to its link to today's court's expected decision on Bhutto's final legal appeal.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party retains a reservoir of support in the country and should it win elections, Bhutto would certainly get a reprieve -- if he were still alive. Political observers in Pakistan and elsewhere believe he would be unlikely to show mercy to those who ousted him from power and prosecuted the murder case against him.
The court ruled 4 to 3 last month against Bhutto's first appeal of his conviction and sentence.
Bhutto's fate, whether he is hanged or granted a last-minute reprieve, is certain to spark unrest in Pakistan and hundreds of Bhutto's supporters, including his wife and daughter, have been jailed or placed under house arrest.
With Iran in turmoil to the west and with violence building in Afghanistan to the north, extreme civil unrest in Pakistan would mean a wide swath from the Middle East to India would be embroiled in chaos and uncertainty.
Bhutto and fourcodefendants were convicted by the Lahore High Court of conspiring in 1974 to murder Ahmed Raza Kasuri, a former ally of Bhutto. Kasuri survived the ambush but his father, riding in the same auto, was killed.