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
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
'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
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
'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
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," thaindian.com, November 14, 2007]
Tariq Ali, "A Tragedy Born of
Military Despotism and Anarchy," Guardian, December 28, 2007