- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Benazir Bhutto, the indicted former prime minister of Pakistan, said she intends to return home from self-exile "sometime later this year" to confront the military government and assume the leadership of the united opposition.

Mrs. Bhutto outlined the preparations for her return at a private gathering Sunday near Washington, where she said she has been "taking stock of when the time could be right for me to return to Pakistan as part of a democratic movement."

The risks for Mrs. Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister, are not slight. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was imprisoned by an earlier military regime and hanged in 1979.

She said her hopes for avoiding arrest and having her corruption conviction overturned were buoyed by an article this week in the London Sunday Times, which reported that the judge and prosecutor at her trial collaborated with senior government officials.

Mrs. Bhutto, who announced last month that she would risk arrest and return to Pakistan, said there was a "political vacuum" in the country since the release from prison into exile of her chief rival and successor, Nawaz Sharif.

Mr. Sharif, who is rumored to have pledged to remain out of politics for 10 years, is now living in Saudi Arabia. His party, the Muslim League, has joined with Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) to seek an end to military rule.

The ARD has "created a lot of pressure for me to return and lead the democratic opposition," Mrs. Bhutto told a supportive audience of Pakistanis and Americans. "I was surprised by the breadth of support for my return," even among followers of parties other than the PPP, she said.

She said she deliberately has not announced the date of her return while the ARD arranges rallies and meetings around the country to prepare the ground.

Her return is unlikely to be welcomed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military leader who has condemned both Mr. Sharif and Mrs. Bhutto as corrupt and vowed to keep them out of politics in the future. He has said his goal is to create new governing structures independent of their two parties.

"I know I could be imprisoned … or shuttled from courtroom to courtroom" upon arrival in Pakistan, Mrs. Bhutto said. "I am prepared to take that calculated political risk."

Mrs. Bhutto was sentenced in absentia in April 1999 to five years in prison for corruption by a special court. Her husband, Asif Zardari, received the same sentence and remains imprisoned in Pakistan.

The couple were also fined $8.6 million on charges of receiving kickbacks from a Swiss company and had their assets seized. Pakistan's Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of the conviction, which Mrs. Bhutto has always claimed was politically motivated.

"Legally I can get bail" pending the outcome of the appeal, but whether that happens will be "a political decision," Mrs. Bhutto said. Given Pakistan's culture, she said the government would run a political risk in jailing her after Mr. Sharif was allowed to go free.

Her claim that she was wrongly convicted was bolstered by the Sunday Times, which cites a letter from a senior intelligence officer saying the phone and office of the judge in her case, Justice Malik Qayyum, had been bugged.

Tapes made during the trial make it clear that the judge was taking direct instructions from the prosecutor and even Mr. Sharif, the prime minister at the time, on the conduct of the proceedings. At one point the prosecutor and judge discussed the sentence she should receive, indicating the final decision would be made by "him," presumably Mr. Sharif.

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