Her sights were still set on a possible career as a diplomat rather than a politician. But soon after her return, in 1977, her father was ousted as prime minister in a military coup and imprisoned, and martial law was declared. Two years later, he was executed, and his death became the defining moment in Bhutto's life, launching her full-bore into politics.
"I told him on my oath in his death cell, I would carry on his work," Bhutto later said.
She paid a price for her promise. Over the next five years, with the Pakistan People's Party outlawed, Bhutto was in and out of detention, sometimes under house arrest, or in prison, under harrowing conditions. In her autobiography, "Daughter of Destiny," she recounted her experience in solitary confinement in a desert cell in 1981, where the heat was almost unbearable.
"My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like invading armies," she wrote. "I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe."
She was allowed to leave Pakistan in 1984 for treatment of a serious ear infection. She settled in London, but the Shakespearean drama of her family's life continued with the mysterious death of one of her two brothers, Shahnawaz, at his home on the French Riviera. Some accounts suggested that he had been poisoned, which Bhutto believed to be the handiwork of Pakistani agents. When Zia lifted martial law in Pakistan in December 1985, Bhutto felt the time had come to return. Her homecoming in April 1986, in the ancient city of Lahore, was tumultuous, celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who thronged the streets and forced her motorcade to slow to such a crawl that it took 10 hours to travel eight miles.
In her elegant British-inflected accent, she called on Zia to resign, saying that it was "a bad year for dictators" -- a reference to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in Haiti. The momentum of her rapturous welcome propelled her on a national tour and then her party to victory in elections in November 1988, months after Zia's death in a mysterious plane crash.
Governance, however, proved difficult for Bhutto in both her terms as prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996. She was credited with immediately ending media restrictions and speaking out for women's rights, but she was constrained by the military and the mullahs, Pakistan's two most powerful groups.
Although Bhutto's domestic rhetoric echoed the populism of her father, with its promises of basic necessities for all, inflation continued to hurt the poor and foreign debts grew. And though the West saw her as a glamorous symbol of moderation, she was unable to curb Islamic and ethnic militancy.
Most damaging of all were the accusations of corruption that began to surface. Bhutto made little secret of her love of the finer things, and she and her husband, businessman Asif Ali Zardari, lived lives beyond the imaginings of most Pakistanis, with residences in London and New York. The money to finance such opulence was suspected to have come from kickbacks and other shady deals by Zardari, who was nicknamed "Mr. 10%." Despite his unpopularity, Bhutto gave him a Cabinet post during her second term.
The corruption allegations drove her from office and eventually the country. Her husband spent eight years in prison, though without a formal conviction. Investigations were opened in Britain, Spain and Switzerland.
Four years ago, a Swiss investigative magistrate convicted Bhutto and Zardari of money laundering. The judge ruled that Swiss firms had bribed the couple in return for a Pakistani government contract. But an appeals court set aside the verdict and the investigation was open at the time of her death.
Last month, Spanish prosecutors closed their three-year investigation of Bhutto and Zardari, citing a lack of evidence. The British case, a civil lawsuit by the Pakistani government involving the purchase of Bhutto's multi-million dollar estate in England, is still pending.
Bhutto's reputation was further damaged by the fatal shooting of her other brother, Murtaza, by police in 1996 in Karachi. Some believe Bhutto, who was prime minister then, herself engineered, or at least tacitly approved the killing, because he challenged her status as party leader. Different factions within the family remain politically at odds with each other; last month, Murtaza's daughter Fatima Bhutto lashed out at her aunt in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, saying that her return could mean the death of the democratic movement in Pakistan.
In self-exile, from her bases in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Bhutto continued to hold sway over her party, contesting the corruption charges and traveling the world promoting her vision of a democratic Pakistan.