1980-1989 | Backing dictatorships | Pakistan

Margaret Thatcher toasts Pakistan’s dictator Zia

Thatcher in 1981 via Wikimedia. – Zia-ul-Haq via Wikimedia.

8 October 1981

On 8 October 1981 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher attended a banquet hosted by Pakistan’s military dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.  In an after dinner speech, she urged other governments to join her’s in supporting the regime, which Britain was already supplying with a large amount of weaponry.  She finished by proposing a toast ‘to the health and happiness of his Excellency the President,’ and to ‘lasting friendship between the peoples of the United Kingdom and Pakistan.’1

General Zia, who had come to power in a military coup in July 1977, was a crucial patron for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. which Britain was likewise supporting in an effort to expel the Soviet backed Afghan government. Zia saw radical Islamists within Pakistan as a natural ally and he introduced extremist Sharia law across the country. He provided state funding for the first time for the country’s radical madrassas (religious schools) and authorized the imprisonment of rape victims for committing zina, the sin of extra marital sex. The general also encouraged fundamentalist Wahhabi trained clerics to travel to the United Kingdom to preach in the mosques.2

In March 1978, Zia’s government had authorized the use of military helicopters to kill hundreds of peasants participating in a non-violent protest against the sentencing to death of former prime minister Zulficar Ali Bhutto.  Later, in March 1981, and just seven months prior to Thatcher’s speech, Zia had issued a presidential decree allowing himself to amend the country’s constitution as he saw fit. When 19 Supreme Court and High Court judges disagreed, he simply fired them. A year after Thatcher’s visit, Zia resorted to repressive legislation to buttress his regime yet further against any pressures from below,  passing Martial Law Regulation number 53 which proscribed the death penalty for ‘any offense liable to cause insecurity, fear or despondency amongst the public.’ A defendant was deemed guilty unless he could prove otherwise. In the words of the declaration: ‘a military court on the basis of police or any other investigation alone may, unless the contrary is proved, presume that this accused has committed the offense charged with.’3 It was hardly surprising when the New York Times declared the same year that Zia’s rule ‘lacked even a semblance of legitimacy.’4 Britain, however, continued to provide the regime with diplomatic, economic and military support and won a major new contract for arms exports just a few weeks prior to Zia’s death in an aircraft accident in August 1988.5


  1. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘speech at banquet given by Pakistan president Zia-Ul-Haq,’ 8 October 1981, cited in The Margaret Thatcher Foundation online archives, accessed online at url https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104716
  2. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2012, p. 139, p. 152 and p. 156.
  3. Martial Law 53 cited in ‘Zia’s state terrorism,’ The New York Times, 6 December 1982, p. 6.
  4. ‘Zia’s state terrorism,’ The New York Times, 6 December 1982, p. 6.
  5. Mark Curtis, op. cit., p. 191.

Please feel welcome to post comments below.  If you have any questions please email alisdare@gmail.com

© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *