Even the most ardent admirers of Benazir Bhutto do not deny that the former first family plundered the country’s wealth. Their defence of Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, an even bigger crook, is that it is nothing uncommon. Others have done similar things. They point out, with some justification, that stealing is still going on in Pakistan. The only difference is that those who are plundering the country’s wealth today are in the ruling party.
All this may be true. But it cannot be accepted as defence in a court of law. A thief cannot plead before a judge, why pick on him when there are others robbing right at that moment. Nor can a rapist escape punishment with this argument.
Last month, there were a number of dramatic developments about the Bhutto thefts. It was announced on September 14 that the Swiss government had agreed to freeze four bank accounts of the Bhutto family totalling perhaps as much as US$80 million. Benazir was forced to concede that she may have bank accounts abroad but that the money was not acquired through illegal means.
Ten days later came more startling news. Senator Saifur Rahman, head of Pakistan’s Accountability Cell, was quoted by the London Times (September 23) that some of Benazir’s money may even be drug-related. Was this a bait to get the British to cooperate in freezing the Bhutto family accounts in Britain? The British government has taken refuge behind a spurious excuse for not doing anything: there is no All Crimes Assets Consfiscation Agreement between the two countries. They will act if there were proof of criminal wrongdoing.
The British are not cooperating because they are still smarting from Pakistan’s refusal in 1991 to freeze the assets of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Instigated by Britain, BCCI offices were raided in a number of countries on July 5, 1991 and the bank was destroyed. Tens of thousands of small Asian traders in Britain lost their life’s savings.
According to some reports, the Bhutto family - Benazir, Nusrat, Asif and his father Hakim Ali Zardari - may have assets totalling $3 billion in Britain. That is a lot of beans even for a crooked former first family. If true, this may explain why Pakistan had come close to bankruptcy before Benazir was dismissed as prime minister on November 5, 1996.
In June 1990, bankers in Britain had revealed that Hakim Ali Zardari had made two cash deposits totalling Stg. 406 million (nearly $1 billion). The senior Zardari was then chairman of the National Assembly Finance Committee. He clearly had his grubby hands on the right post!
Islamabad was able to convince the Swiss authorities about the stolen wealth when Pakistani officials showed them documents. These included Benazir and Zardari’s tax returns in which they showed paltry sums as income. They paid even less as income tax.
A number of businessmen who were forced to pay hefty commissions to Asif Zardari - Mr Ten Percent or is it Thirty? - have also given evidence to the Accountability Cell. These will further strengthen the case against the Bhuttos and the Zardaris, if the Pakistani government is serious about recovering the loot.
Despite denying any wrongdoing, Benazir rushed to London on September 26 to confer with her lawyers. While she was preparing her defence, Chaudhry Mukhtar, commerce minister in her government, told the Voice of America Urdu Service on October 1 that the four accounts frozen by the Swiss did not belong to Benazir. Really?
Two days later, however, came the news that Ste Generale de Surveillance Holding SA (SGS), the Swiss container/cargo inspection company, had sold its stake in Contecne Group. Both SGS and Contecna International are under investigation in the kickbacks scheme involving millions of dollars to Asif Zardari.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, there is widespread cynicism about the process of accountability. People not only question the selectivity of the process but serious doubts are being expressed about whether Benazir and Zardari would really be forced to cough up the stolen billions.
The most commonly heard refrain is that all this is designed to force the Bhuttos and the Zardaris to quit Pakistani politics. According to this scenario, once they agree, they will be allowed to go to France or Britain to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth. The people of Pakistan will be left holding the bag once again.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1997