Returning to Pakistan on October 18, Benazir Bhutto discovered how radically the country has changed in the eight years she was away “languishing” in self-imposed exile. Heading a political procession—in reality a circus of rented crowds—from the airport to the mausoleum of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Benazir’s procession was attacked by two suicide-bombers who left 140 people dead and more than 500 injured. She survived, badly shaken, and hurriedly sought refuge in the safety of her heavily guarded home in the upmarket neighbourhood of Clifton, far from the noisy, garbage-strewn streets of Karachi, whose pavements are home for teeming masses.
The double attack occurred just after midnight. The crowd, exhausted by the long journey, had thinned from 100,000 (not the millions as some Benazir-doting Western media outlets had claimed) to about 20,000. Most of the dead were bodyguards or street urchins with nothing better to do to while away their time. She had taken all precautions possible, including sending a message to General Pervez Musharraf two days before her arrival that a “brotherly” country had warned her of a suicide attack. She alleged that even the phone-numbers of people involved in planning the attack were provided. It is not difficult to guess that “brotherly” country’s name; after all, Benazir does not serve Pakistan’s interests: she has plundered its wealth to the tune of $1.5 billion and stored it in foreign banks. Interestingly, a Swiss judge, Vincent Fournier, announced the same day as Benazir returned to Pakistan that he had completed his investigation and would hand over his confidential findings to Geneva’s chief prosecutor, Daniel Zappelli, for action. Fournier, however, has conceded that the money-laundering allegations against Benazir and her husband will be harder to prove now that Musharraf has agreed to withdraw the corruption charges against her. At least $13 million remain frozen in bank accounts in Geneva in connection with the criminal case that relate to kickbacks from Swiss cargo-inspection companies in the 1990s.
While the Americans, aware of their unpopularity in Pakistan, have maintained an unusually low public profile in the affair, the British have been more upfront. As Benazir was about to land in Karachi, Lord Malloch-Brown, a British foreign office minister, arrived in Islamabad to discuss the nature of a future government that he wants to ensure will be pro-West (pro-Britain, in particular, would be even better). A day earlier, Hamish Daniel, the British consul-general in Karachi, had met Ishratul Ebad, Sind’s governor, to tell him that Benazir was to be accorded full protocol. Why the British consul general should be so keen on ensuring full protocol for her when she is not a British citizen and claims to be a leader of the Pakistani people is not difficult to fathom. What Daniel left unsaid, but was clearly implied in his message, was that if Ebad did not comply with the orders, his own party boss, Altaf Hussain, head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), would be in trouble. Murder charges could be initiated against him or he could be expelled from Britain and handed over to Pakistan to face murder charges. The MQM has been involved in the torture and murder of opponents. Daniel need not have worried; Ebad admitted during an interview with the Dubai-based ARY television station on October 18 that his party has “complete unanimity of views” withBenazir’s. Both are aligned with Musharraf’s military regime.
Benazir took other precautions as well: she utilized all her contacts in the West to ensure a well-publicized return. The army of Western journalists accompanying her stood in sharp contrast with news coverage of the return of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was bundled onto a plane and sent back into exile in Saudi Arabia on September 10. Having covered her Western bases, Benazir did not ignore the Pakistani scene either. People were bussed in from remote villages and hamlets in the interior of Sind. The total cost of this circus was put at Rs 300 million ($500,000). As she emerged from the plane, she waved with prayer beads in hand to assure the crowd of her “Islamic credentials”. This was capped by the slaughter of sheep at Data Darbar, a shrine in the heart of Lahore. Yet these “religious” acts did not register with the Islam-hating Western journalists; they did not declare her a fundamentalist, nor denounce her for pandering to primitive notions. Despite the security precautions and prayers at various shrines, the suicide-bombers were not deterred from striking.
Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, immediately blamed elements in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI); Benazir was a little more circumspect. She named a number of possible culprits: Taliban or pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan; al-Qa’ida; “Islamists”; and, of course, certain intelligence operatives, but from the Intelligence Bureau headed by retired brigadier Ejaz Shah, working in tandem with the Muslim League (Q-faction), which sees her arrival as a challenge to their position as Musharraf’s favourite puppets. She took pains to absolveMusharraf of any responsibility because she did not want to disrupt the US-brokered deal to have corruption charges against her dropped. Pompously referred to as the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), the deal was signed by Musharraf early last month. It dismisses corruption charges against bureaucrats and politicians for the period January 1986 to October 12, 1999, but does not relieve others (the Sharif brothers, for instance), against whom charges were brought in 2000. The Benazir-specific NRO has been challenged inPakistan’s Supreme Court. A number of other cases are also before the court, includingMusharraf’s “election” as president on October 6 through the almost defunct assemblies.
The death-dance in Karachi is part of a macabre ritual in which two groups—one led by a ruthless bunch of corrupt pro-Western generals and equally corrupt feudal lords, and the other by anti-Western elements harbouring misguided notions of Islam—are involved in a struggle for control of the country. The Pakistani people are completely dispensable in this game; there was barely a word of sympathy or regret for the people blown to pieces in the twin blasts. At first Benazir insisted that a judicial inquiry be launched; two days later she came up with an even more fantastic demand: that foreign intelligence agencies, preferably the American CIA, should lead the investigation. This was clearly an attempt to imply thatPakistan’s own agencies might have been involved in the blasts. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the Muslim League (Q-faction), bristled at the suggestion that members of his party might have had anything to do with the blasts. He offered an even more fantastic explanation: that Zardari enacted the drama to stimulate sympathy for Benazir. He claimed that Benazir had conveniently slipped inside her bulletproof truck just before the blasts.
Who would want to eliminate Benazir? She has many enemies. The easiest group to blame would be anti-American elements; they form a very large segment of the Pakistani population, but this is rather simplistic. There are many in the political and intelligence establishments who see her return as a threat to their interests. Even the MQM, despite its claims of unanimity of views with her, cannot be absolved, as the former ISI chief GeneralHamid Gul said in an interview. The MQM is completely averse to allowing anyone to challenge its dominance in Karachi or the major cities of Sind. In fact, the party was created by the late General Zia ul-Haq in the nineteen-eighties specifically to undermine the Pakistan People’s Party. Zia was successful in this venture, but its negative consequences are still being borne by Pakistan’s people.
The Benazir saga may yet turn out to be a footnote in Pakistani politics, as the Supreme Court’s verdict on Musharraf’s eligibility to contest the presidential polls is awaited. At Crescent International press time, this verdict had not yet been delivered. If the honourable judges muster enough courage to do the right thing, Musharraf may find it difficult to hang on to power. That, however, would not end Pakistan’s political crisis. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of political maturity among the myriad political parties or their leaders. Without exception, they are rank opportunists and would sell themselves for a shoulder of mutton. The price for such chicanery has always been paid by the hapless Pakistanis.
Stench of corruption still hanging over Benazir
Although Benazir Bhutto made a triumphant return to Pakistan last month, boosted by the knowledge that she enjoys the support of theUS, the main power-broker in Pakistani politics, many in Pakistan still regard her as irreversibly tainted by allegations of corruption. Her return was made possible by a controversial amnesty against charges in Pakistan granted to her bypresident Perwez Musharraf, which may yet be overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. However, she still faces several cases outside Pakistan, which tend to disprove her supporters’ claims that the charges have been fabricated by political opponents in Pakistan.
In 2003, a judge in Geneva convicted Benazir, her husband, Asif Zardari. and several close associates of receiving around $15 million in kickbacks from Pakistani government contracts with two Swiss governments while she was prime minister. Benazir and Zardari were each sentenced to 180 days in prison, which they have not served, and ordered to repay $11.9 million to the government of Pakistan. They appealed the case, which is now being reheard, along with further serious charges of aggravated money-laundering. Benazir’s supporters suggest that the Swiss case will collapse as a result of the Pakistani amnesty, but this is not necessarily the case. Further developments in the case are expected soon.
Another high-profile case concerns the Rockwood country estate in Surrey, England, which the Pakistan government allege was bought by Benazir and Zardari using the proceeds of corruption. For eight years after the issue was first raised, Benazir and Zardari denied that the estate belonged to them. In 2004, however, Zardari suddenly admitted owning it. Two years later, the judge hearing the case ruled that there was a “reasonable prospect” that the Pakistani government would establish in future court action that Benazir and her husband had bought the estate with “the fruits of corruption”. However, as this is a civil case bought by the Pakistani government, it may not be pursued if Musharraf’s amnesty is upheld by the Supreme Court.
Potentially the most serious charges that Bhutto faces, however, pertain to her period in exile. In 2005, a company called PetrolineFZC, based in the UAE, was one of more than 2,000 companies reported by a US inquiry to have breached UN sanctions against Iraq by making illegal payments to Saddam Hussein’s regime before 2003. Petroline FZC was found to have traded $144 million of Iraqi oil, and made $2 million of illegal payments to the Iraqi regime. According to documents held by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau,Benazir was the chairman of Petroline FZC during this time. Financial transactions linked to Petroline FZC are reportedly also being investigated by Spanish authorities. These allegations are particularly serious for Benazir because they concern international institutions rather than Pakistani ones, and because they occurred after the period 1986-1999 covered by Musharraf’s amnesty.
Her hope may be that she can make herself so useful to the US in Pakistan that it will use its considerable influence to prevent legal action from being taken against here anywhere else in the world. Pakistan’s elites have always sought to use political power for their own purposes, rather than the interests of their country or its people, but this would be taking political opportunism to truly unprecedented levels.