Friday, January 4, 2008

There is a fresh and sordid postscript to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Tainted by her husband Asif Ali Khan Zardari’s penchant for graft and corruption, Mrs. Bhutto was twice fired as prime minister (1990 and 1996). Her closest friends now say she did not appoint Mr. Zardari to succeed her as party leader in case of death. The political testament Mr. Zardari read on television was his recent creation, not hers.

These friends of longstanding had never heard of such a document. Mr. Zardari is known as “Mr. 10 Percent” and is widely reviled as one of the most corrupt political hacks of the last 30 years. As “Minister of Investment” in Mrs. Bhutto’s second Cabinet, all government contracts passed through his hands. They were not approved until a kickback was deposited in a numbered foreign bank account. There are cases pending against him in three foreign jurisdictions, including Switzerland, for money laundering.

Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) lined up 62 witnesses and 18,000 pages of testimony against Mr. Zardari’s corrupt practices. Typical was a case filed before the Lahore High Court charging Mr. Zardari, in collusion with others, “obtained illegal gratification and undue pecuniary advantage in the form of commissions and kickbacks in the purchase of URSUS tractors from Poland.”

Trials have been held in several Pakistani jurisdictions without a sentence being pronounced, but Mr. Zardari has been imprisoned twice, the last time for 8½ years, in a forbidding fortress prison near Peshawar. Released in 2004 because of poor health, which included a heart ailment, he has lived in New York for the last two years while undergoing treatment.

None of about 18 corruption and criminal cases against Mr. Zardari was proved in court over 10 years. Benazir Bhutto herself faced corruption charges in a half-dozen cases, which she steadfastly denied and said were politically motivated.

It was Mr. Zardari’s increasingly lucrative deals that prompted then-President Farooq Leghari to dismiss Mrs. Bhutto and her government in 1996. Mr. Leghari was shown invoices for buying French military aircraft padded several million dollars per plane beyond the agreed price. Mr. Leghari is one of the very few clean political leaders in the country and is now being touted as “Mr. Clean” to lead a coalition government after the next elections, now postponed until Feb. 18.

Mrs. Bhutto told those closest to her she would never allow Mr. Zardari back into Pakistan’s political process if she herself were to make it back for a third term as prime minister. He was damaged goods beyond political repair. In fact, he was now a political liability for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

The last thing on Benazir Bhutto’s mind was to promote the political rehabilitation of her husband in an arranged marriage who had brought down her government, not once but twice. If something were to happen to her, she mentioned her 19-year-old son Bilawal, but felt he would not be ready for the rough and tumble world of Pakistan’s dysfunctional politics until he finished his history degree at Oxford. Her e-mails to close friends in the U.S. and United Kingdom mentioned the names of would-be assassins, but not who should succeed her in case of death. PPP leaders accepted the husband’s surprise proclamation of the hitherto unknown heir for the sake of party unity and to ensure victory in the forthcoming elections. These leaders are now conceding, albeit off the record, that Mr. Zardari hijacked the party on TV when he read her alleged will.

That Bilawal Bhutto would accept his elevation to succeed his mother and then transfer the mantle in the next sentence to his father stretches credulity among those who know Benazir Bhutto best.

When arrested the first time in 1990, after Mrs. Bhutto was first dismissed as prime minister, Mr. Zardari was accused of tying a remote-controlled bomb to the leg of a U.K.-based Pakistani businessman, Murtaza Bukhari, and the sending him into a bank to withdraw money from his account for a payoff he had been avoiding. In 1993, when Mrs. Bhutto regained power, Mr. Zardari was plucked out of prison to be made the minister in charge of government investments (i.e., contracts).

No sooner was Mrs. Bhutto deposed the second time than Mr. Zardari was charged with the murder of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, his wife’s influential brother, who was expected to play the role of PPP leader. After the execution of their father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by military dictator President Zia ul-Haq in 1979, Murtaza fled to then communist-controlled Afghanistan. From there and later in Middle Eastern capitals, Murtaza mounted an insurgency against Pakistan’s military regime, then won elections from exile in 1993, became a provincial legislator, came home — only to be shot dead.

Benazir’s other brother, Shahnawaz, was also politically active — and was found dead of poisoning in his French Riviera apartment in 1985.

Mr. Zardari was the son of a Sindhi tribal chief who had opted for the lifestyle of the wealthy members of the upper classes. He did most of his schooling at Karachi’s St. Patrick’s, as did President Musharraf. A polo-playing bachelor, he had a private disco at home and was known as a playboy. Benazir, a product of the establishment, became the icon of the anti-establishment — and Mr. Zardari feigned to conform. He grew very wealthy, protected by her long shadow.

If the Bhutto dynasty holds, the legitimate heir of the PPP is Sanam Bhutto, Benazir’s younger sister and only daughter left among the children of Ali Bhutto, the prime minister who was hanged by the previous military dictator. Sanam is convinced the assassination of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, was ordered by Mr. Zardari. Murtaza’s widow and children are also certain Mr. Zardari was involved.

How long can such an ailing 54-year-old maintain the fiction he is now Pakistan’s most prominent political leader? Stay tuned.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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