Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto, photographed about two years before she was assassinated
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Benazir Bhutto was born into one of South Asia's great political dynasties, Pakistan's equivalent of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty in India. Her father was president of Pakistan from 1971 to 1973, and Prime Minister from 1973 to 1977; his father, in turn, was prime minister of a princely state before independence and the Partition of India.

Politics in Pakistan, however, is a dangerous game. In the end, Benazir, her father, and both of her brothers would die violently.

Early Life

Benazir Bhutto was born on June 21, 1953, in Karachi, Pakistan, the first child of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Begum Nusrat Ispahani. Nusrat was from Iran, and practiced Shi'a Islam, while her husband practiced Sunni Islam. They raised Benazir and their other children as Sunnis but in an open-minded and non-doctrinaire fashion.

The couple later would have two sons and another daughter: Murtaza (born in 1954), daughter Sanam (born in 1957), and Shahnawaz (born in 1958). As the eldest child, Benazir was expected to do very well in her studies, regardless of her gender.

Benazir went to school in Karachi through high school, then attended Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard University) in the United States, where she studied comparative government. Bhutto later said that her experience in Boston reconfirmed her belief in the power of democracy.

After graduating from Radcliffe in 1973, Benazir Bhutto spent several additional years studying at Oxford University in Great Britain. She took a wide variety of courses in international law and diplomacy, economics, philosophy, and politics.

Entry into Politics

Four years into Benazir's studies in England, the Pakistani military overthrew her father's government in a coup. The coup leader, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, imposed martial law on Pakistan and had Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrested on trumped-up conspiracy charges. Benazir returned home, where she and her brother Murtaza worked for 18 months to rally public opinion in support of their jailed father. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, meanwhile, convicted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced him to death by hanging.

Due to their activism on behalf of their father, Benazir and Murtaza were placed under house arrest off and on. As Zulfikar's designated execution date of April 4, 1979, drew closer, Benazir, her mother, and her younger siblings were all arrested and imprisoned in a police camp.


Despite an international outcry, General Zia's government hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on April 4, 1979. Benazir, her brother, and her mother were in prison at the time and were not allowed to prepare the former prime minister's body for burial in accordance with Islamic law.

When Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won local elections that spring, Zia canceled national elections and sent the surviving members of the Bhutto family to prison in Larkana, about 460 kilometers (285 miles) north of Karachi.

Over the next five years, Benazir Bhutto would be held either in prison or under house arrest. Her worst experience was in a desert prison at Sukkur, where she was held in solitary confinement for six months of 1981, including the worst of the summer heat. Tormented by insects, and with her hair falling out and skin peeling off from the baking temperatures, Bhutto had to be hospitalized for several months after this experience.

Once Benazir was sufficiently recovered from her term at Sukkur Jail, Zia's government sent her back to the Karachi Central Jail, then to Larkana once more, and back to Karachi under house arrest. Meanwhile, her mother, who had also been held at Sukkur, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Benazir herself had developed an inner ear problem that required surgery.

International pressure mounted for Zia to allow them to leave Pakistan to seek medical care. Finally, after six years of moving the Bhutto family from one form of imprisonment to the next, General Zia allowed them to go into exile in order to get treatment.


Benazir Bhutto and her mother went to London in January of 1984 to begin their self-imposed medical exile. As soon as Benazir's ear problem was remedied, she began to publicly advocate against the Zia regime.

Tragedy touched the family once more on July 18, 1985. After a family picnic, Benazir's youngest brother, the 27-year-old Shah Nawaz Bhutto, died of poisoning in his home in France. His family believed that his Afghan princess wife, Rehana, had murdered Shah Nawaz at the behest of the Zia regime; although French police held her in custody for some time, no charges were ever brought against her.

Despite her grief, Benazir Bhutto continued her political involvement. She became the leader in exile of her father's Pakistan People's Party.

Marriage & Family Life

Between the assassinations of her close relatives and Benazir's own frantically busy political schedule, she had no time for dating or meeting men. In fact, by the time she entered her 30s, Benazir Bhutto had begun to assume that she would never marry; politics would be her life's work and only love. Her family had other ideas.

An auntie advocated for a fellow Sindhi and scion of a landed family, a young man named Asif Ali Zardari. Benazir refused to even meet him at first, but after a concerted effort by her family and his, the marriage was arranged (despite Benazir's feminist qualms about arranged marriages). The marriage was a happy one, and the couple had three children - a son, Bilawal (born 1988), and two daughters, Bakhtawar (born 1990) and Aseefa (born 1993). They had hoped for a larger family, but Asif Zardari was imprisoned for seven years, so they were unable to have more children.

Return and Election as Prime Minister

On August 17, 1988, the Bhuttos received a favor from the heavens, as it were. A C-130 carrying General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and several of his top military commanders, along with US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Lewis Raphel, crashed near Bahawalpur, in the Punjab region of Pakistan. No definitive cause was ever established, although theories included sabotage, Indian missile strike, or a suicidal pilot. Simple mechanical failure seems the most likely cause, however.

Zia's unexpected death cleared the way for Benazir and her mother to lead the PPP to victory in the November 16, 1988, parliamentary elections. Benazir became Pakistan's eleventh prime minister on December 2, 1988. Not only was she Pakistan's first female Prime Minister, but also the first woman to lead a Muslim nation in modern times. She focused on social and political reforms, which rankled more traditional or Islamist politicians.

Prime Minister Bhutto faced a number of international policy problems during her first tenure in office, including the Soviet and American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting chaos. Bhutto reached out to India, establishing a good working relationship with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but that initiative failed when he was voted out of office, and then assassinated by Tamil Tigers in 1991.

Pakistan's relationship with the United States, already strained by the situation in Afghanistan, broke altogether in 1990 over the issue of nuclear weapons. Benazir Bhutto firmly believed that Pakistan needed a credible nuclear deterrent since India had already tested a nuclear bomb in 1974.

Corruption Charges

On the domestic front, Prime Minister Bhutto sought to improve human rights and the position of women in Pakistani society. She restored freedom of the press and allowed labor unions and student groups to meet openly once again.

Prime Minister Bhutto also working assiduously to weaken the ultra-conservative president of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and his allies in the military leadership. However, Khan had veto power over parliamentary actions, which severely restricted Benazir's effectiveness on matters of political reform.

In November of 1990, Khan dismissed Benazir Bhutto from the Prime Ministership and called new elections. She was charged with corruption and nepotism under the Eighth Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution; Bhutto always maintained that the charges were purely political.

The conservative parliamentarian Nawaz Sharif became the new prime minister, while Benazir Bhutto was relegated to being the opposition leader for five years. When Sharif also tried to repeal the Eighth Amendment, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan used it to recall his government in 1993, just as he had done to Bhutto's government three years earlier. As a result, Bhutto and Sharif joined forces to oust President Khan in 1993.

Second Term as Prime Minister

In October of 1993, Benazir Bhutto's PPP got a plurality of the parliamentary seats and formed a coalition government. Once again, Bhutto became prime minister. Her hand-picked candidate for the presidency, Farooq Leghari, took office in the place of Khan.

In 1995, an alleged conspiracy to oust Bhutto in a military coup was exposed, and the leaders tried and jailed for sentences of two to fourteen years. Some observers believe that the putative coup was simply an excuse for Benazir to rid the military of some of her opponents. On the other hand, she had first-hand knowledge of the danger a military coup could pose, considering her father's fate.

Tragedy struck the Bhuttos once more on September 20, 1996, when Karachi police shot dead Benazir's surviving brother, Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto. Murtaza had not gotten along well with Benazir's husband, which sparked conspiracy theories about his assassination. Even Benazir Bhutto's own mother accused the prime minister and her husband of causing Murtaza's death.

In 1997, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was dismissed from office once more, this time by President Leghari, whom she had supported. Again, she was charged with corruption; her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was also implicated. Leghari reportedly believed that the couple was implicated in Murtaza Bhutto's assassination.

Exile Once More

Benazir Bhutto stood for parliamentary elections in February of 1997 but was defeated. Meanwhile, her husband had been arrested trying to get to Dubai and went on trial for corruption. While in prison, Zardari won a parliamentary seat.

In April of 1999, both Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari were convicted of corruption and were fined $8.6 million US each. They were both sentenced to five years in prison. However, Bhutto was already in Dubai, which refused to extradite her back to Pakistan, so only Zardari served his sentence. In 2004, after his release, he joined his wife in exile in Dubai.

Return to Pakistan

On October 5, 2007, General and President Pervez Musharraf granted Benazir Bhutto amnesty from all of her corruption convictions. Two weeks later, Bhutto returned to Pakistan to campaign for the 2008 elections. On the day she landed at Karachi, a suicide bomber attacked her convoy surrounded by well-wishers, killing 136 and injuring 450; Bhutto escaped unharmed.

In response, Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3. Bhutto criticized the declaration and called Musharraf a dictator. Five days later, Benazir Bhutto was placed under house arrest to prevent her from rallying her supporters against the state of emergency.

Bhutto was freed from house arrest the following day, but the state of emergency remained in effect until December 16, 2007. In the meantime, however, Musharraf gave up his post as a general in the army, affirming his intention to rule as a civilian.

The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

On December 27, 2007, Bhutto appeared at an election rally in the park known as Liaquat National Bagh in Rawalpindi. As she was leaving the rally, she stood up to wave to supporters through the sunroof of her SUV. A gunman shot her three times, and then explosives went off all around the vehicle.

Twenty people died on the scene; Benazir Bhutto passed away about an hour later in the hospital. Her cause of death was not the gunshot wounds but rather blunt force head trauma. The blast of the explosions had slammed her head into the edge of the sunroof with terrible force.

Benazir Bhutto died at the age of 54, leaving behind a complicated legacy. The charges of corruption leveled against her husband and herself do not seem to have been entirely invented for political reasons, despite Bhutto's assertions to the contrary in her autobiography. We may never know whether she had any fore-knowledge about her brother's assassination.

In the end, though, nobody can question Benazir Bhutto's bravery. She and her family endured tremendous hardships, and whatever her faults as a leader, she genuinely did strive to improve life for the ordinary people of Pakistan.


  • Bahadur, Kalim. Democracy in Pakistan: Crises and Conflicts, New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1998.
  • "Obituary: Benazir Bhutto," BBC News, Dec. 27, 2007.
  • Bhutto, Benazir. Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography, 2nd ed., New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
  • Bhutto, Benazir. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
  • Englar, Mary. Benazir Bhutto: Pakistani Prime Minister and Activist, Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2006.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).