Release Date: October 7, 1999
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Benazir Bhutto: Damsel In Distress

by Eric Margolis

WASHINGTON -- Breathlessly racing down 15th Street to make a meeting for which she was an hour overdue, wearing a long, baggy taupe sweater over which her thick, dark hair fell in dramatic cascades, arms filled with bags and notebooks, Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan, and sometime target of this column's criticism, looked more like a university coed late for class than one of the world's most famous and controversial women who is now on trial for her political and personal life.

I recalled with a smile how Pakistan's tough generals invariably referred to Benazir Bhutto as 'that girl.' But by the time we finally sat down with the American Bar Association, she was again very much madam prime minister. Benazir crisply ran through a list of examples of how she and her family were victims of a 'campaign of judicial abuse' by the current Pakistani government, led by her bitter political rival, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and other allies of the late President Zia ul-Haq, under whose regime her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged. She scolded me for associating with the old-guard generals who opposed her, whom she calls 'thugs.'

Both Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zadari, who has been in prison since she was ousted from office in 1996 for corruption, have been sentenced to five years in prison. Benazir is currently living in exile with her children in a two-room flat in London , pending the outcome of her High Court appeal next month.

However, Benazir claims the Bhuttos cannot get a fair trial in Pakistan, which is probably true. Pakistan's corrupt legal system is an extension of tribal warfare: judges and witness, like its venal politicians, are bought and sold like so many bags of basmati rice. If convicted, Bhutto will lose her right to run for office and even her extensive personal property.

Later, during lengthy private talks, Benazir told me that witnesses in the many criminal charges leveled against the Bhutto clan - which includes her husband, mother, and father-in-law - had been bribed, threatened, or tortured. On 20 Sept, Asif Zadari, who is also charged with arranging the murder of Benazir's estranged brother, Murtaza, in 1996, was indicted for trafficking in heroin by a special Pakistani court, and faces the death penalty. 'The witness against my husband in the drug case was forced to sign a confession under threat of death,' says Benazir.

Many cyncial Pakistanis discounted accusations against the Bhuttos as a frame-up. But all this changed when incorruptible Swiss federal prosecutors announced the Bhuttos and their Pakistan People's Party had hidden at least 20 million Swiss francs (C$20 million) made from money laundering, illegal payoffs, and, possibly, drug dealing in numbered accounts in Geneva. A Swiss firm hired by the Bhutto government to monitor customs duties was accused of having paid a percentage of their collections to the Bhutto's secret Swiss accounts. Swiss prosecutors froze the Bhutto accounts and sent their indictment to Pakistani federal prosecutors for criminal action.

'Few people believed the Pakistani government charges,' Benazir said, 'until the Swiss investigation. But that changed everything.' Indeed. Not only did the Swiss charges widely discredit the Bhutto clan in Pakistan, the accusations of massive bribery and drug dealing caused Benazir's many ardent supporters in Washington and the western media, whom she was seeking to enlist to her cause, to give her the cold shoulder. Why would the normally discreet, cautious Swiss bring such inflammatory charges unless they had overwhelming proof of guilt?

'I don't know,' insists Benazir. 'I've never had a bank account in Switzerland since 1984. Why would the Swiss do this to me? Maybe the Swiss are trying to divert attention from the Holocaust gold scandal.'

I don't know either. Benazir Bhutto is beautiful, fascinating, a damsel in deep, deep distress, though through it one also sees occasional flashes of the imperious nature that marked the Bhuttos, Pakistan's foremost great feudal landowners. Up close to Benazir, it's very hard for me to believe this urbane, US and British educated, very First World lady, who speaks passionately of improving women's conditions, modernizing her nation, and bringing it the benefits of western-style democracy, could have b een stashing sordid payoffs in Swiss banks and using the proceeds to buy expensive jewelry and houses, as critics assert.

But, sadly, there seems ample evidence of massive corruption against her husband and his father, Ali Zardari, well known to all Pakistanis as 'Mr. 10%.' The Zadaris appear to have treated Pakistan, one of the world's poorer nations, like their personal p ossession and its treasury as their private purse. Other Pakistani politicians are also corrupt. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family, for example, have been frequently accused of financial misdeeds. But the Zardaris went over the top with their e xcesses, and treated with disdainful arrogance those who criticized their reckless behavior - for which they are now paying the price.

Benazir, who is deeply in love with Asif Zadari, seems not to have seen any of this. As Balzac wryly noted, 'when women love us, they forgive us everything...' but added, 'women, when they are not in love, have all the cold blood of an experienced attorne y.' I believe Benazir shut her eyes to the rapaciousness of her family. One sympathizes with her as a wife whose judgement may have been clouded by emotion and loyalty. But in her role as prime minister, and the first woman to head an Islamic nation, s he should have been more the cold-blooded attorney and less the adoring wife.

'Be optimistic,' I advised, 'You'll soon be back as prime minister.' Court rulings get overturned in Pakistan - or simply ignored. All the charges against Benazir and her family could vanish like snow on the Baluchi desert. In Pakistan, the great wheel of life is always turning. After all, Benazir spent 6 years in jail or detention after her father was overthrown, and was kicked out of office twice. She is a Pakistani phoenix.

Pakistanis usually give their leaders two years to change things before erupting in fury, as they are now doing in mass protests against Nawaz Sharif's foundering, aimless government. Pakistan is in a huge mess. But aside from the perennial Benazir and N awaz, no other national leaders have sprung from Pakistan's arid political soil. The middle class, as Benazir observes, as no influence at all. Pakistan's Islamic parties have little more. The only national institution that works, and commands respect, is the military.

Nawaz's fall would leave either the army or Benazir. The generals don't want to rule openly. The US prefers Benazir to the generals, and both, or anybody, for that matter, to Pakistan's rowdy Islamists. So it's back to another round of Pakistani musical chairs, with Benazir a favorite to win.

More of the same, however, is not going to save Pakistan from bankruptcy, or from India's campaign to spend it into ruin through a nuclear arms race, or from endemic domestic chaos. Pakistan needs a bottom to top revolution. Instead, the nation founded to uplift and modernize the Islamic World, seems to be steadily crumbling.

Will 'that girl' end up an exile, teaching in the USA, or will she effect a third coming and re-emerge as Pakistan's once and future leader? Will she re-invent herself and become Pakistan's reforming Fury? Will she ditch the Zadaris who have brought he r so much misfortune and become a single-mom prime minister? Stay tuned for the next installment of the world's most gripping and longest-running political drama.

Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.

[The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its top leadership has been consistently denying that Benazir and her spouse Asif Ali Zardari own assets worth 1.5 billion dollars.--"Details of Benazir's 1.5 billion dollars assets on web,", November 14, 2007]

Tariq Ali, "A Tragedy Born of Military Despotism and Anarchy," Guardian, December 28, 2007 back button