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The shame of it all
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 02 - 2006

Benazir Bhutto is still haunted by corruption, writes Iffat Idris from Islamabad
Last week Interpol announced that it had issued red notices for former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Zardari. The notices were issued at the request of the Pakistan government, and relate to corruption charges.
Bhutto has been living in exile since 1999, dividing her time between Dubai and London. Her husband was released by the Musharraf government last year, after eight years in detention for various charges -- including murder -- and is currently undergoing medical treatment in the United States.
Interpol stressed that the red notices were not the same as international arrest warrants. Rather they are the equivalent of provisional arrest warrants: an indication to member countries that the people mentioned are wanted by a government. The most likely course of action is for member countries' own police to arrest those named in the notices; extradition is not automatic, but more likely where a bilateral extradition treaty exists. Bottom line: Bhutto and her husband do not face imminent arrest, but their liberty is under threat.
In recent years Benazir Bhutto has increasingly been in the headlines not for her political activities, but for corruption charges. She and her husband are accused in several corruption scandals in Pakistan. They have always dismissed those charges as politically motivated, but their 2005 conviction by a Swiss court for taking kick-backs seriously undermined that defence. This latest development will not help their cause.
Benazir Bhutto entered politics, following in the footsteps of her father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto. Bhutto Senior was toppled by a military coup, led by General Zia-ul-Haq, and subsequently convicted and hanged for murder. After years in jail and exile, Benazir returned to Pakistan and -- following the General's death in a plane bomb -- was elected the country's first female Prime Minister.
Unfortunately her first administration, from 1988 to 1990, was renowned only for corruption and mismanagement. Benazir's husband acquired the less-than-flattering nickname 'Mr 10 Per Cent' -- a reference to the cut he took for approving government contracts. That government was dismissed for corruption by the president, but Benazir was returned to power in 1993. Her second stint in office proved no different, however -- except that Zardari's nickname was 'Mr 30 Per Cent'.
Benazir Bhutto has always maintained her innocence, and accused the Nawaz Sharif government that succeeded her in 1996, and the Musharraf government that seized power in 1999, of pursuing her through the courts in order to damage her political prospects. Her response to Interpol's announcement followed the same line. But she also accused President Musharraf of calling for the red notices in order to divert attention from troubles at home. Specifically, from the US bombing of Bajaur in the tribal belt which killed 18 Pakistanis and led to nationwide protests.
Analysts have focused on the first reason, related to the country's murky politics. In 2005 there had been talk of rapprochement between Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the military government. The release of Asif Zardari was interpreted as part of that rapprochement. But since then, relations between Bhutto and the government have deteriorated. Her PPP is one of the strongest opposition forces in the country. It did well in recent local government elections. Musharraf will therefore be concerned about a possible Bhutto return to Pakistan, and increased popular support for the PPP.
Why would Benazir want to return when she faces corruption charges? She has been leading her party from self-imposed exile for seven years. Despite being a strong leader and maintaining a firm grip on the PPP, her prolonged absence has harmed the party. In 2003 several PPP parliamentarians defected and joined the ruling coalition. The longer she stays away, the greater the risk of others following suit.
There are important elections looming in Pakistan: first for the Senate (upper house of parliament), then in 2007 for the National Assembly. Benazir's presence in Pakistan will be vital if the PPP is to do well in those elections. Musharraf will be equally keen to ensure that the PPP does not do well: success for the opposition parties would hamper his ambitions to stay on as president and chief of army staff.
Seen against this backdrop, the Pakistan government's call for red notices against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari, could actually be designed to have the opposite effect to that stated. In other words, they are designed not to bring the couple back to Pakistan, but to ensure that they stay away. They are a warning to Bhutto that if she does return, she will face arrest and detention.
PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar declared: "It is aimed at pressurising Benazir Bhutto and the PPP at a time when she has declared her intention to return to Pakistan. Such tactics in the past could not deter Benazir Bhutto or the PPP; they will not deter us now... A frustrated regime is doomed to fail."
The red notices are also a warning to Pakistan's other famous political exile, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He left the country in 2000 after striking a deal with the military government: in return for his 'freedom' he agreed to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years. Sharif was sent to Jeddah, where he effectively lived in a gilded cage. Only very recently was he issued with a passport and allowed to leave Saudi Arabia. The action being taken against Bhutto can be seen as a warning to him: be too vocal in expressing opposition to Musharraf and you too could be dragged back on corruption charges.
When questioned about the Interpol notices, Ms Bhutto -- speaking from Washington where she is visiting her husband -- claimed to be ready to face the music: 'As far as I'm concerned, if any court wants me in Pakistan, I'm prepared to catch the next plane and go to Pakistan.' Given the reception waiting for her, however, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.


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