Bhutto to Musharraf: We Can Still Deal

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at a press conference in October 2007.

As police and the military used tear gas to suppress a protest by thousands of lawyers in Pakistan's largest cities, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto spoke to TIME about the imposition of martial law by President Pervez Musharraf. She said that Musharraf was falling under the sway of the more radical parts of his Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (PML-Q) party. Still, she said she was not shutting the door on negotiations with Musharraf. Bhutto, who leads the huge People's Party, has not asked her millions of fervent followers to come out into the streets. During the interview, she evinced some sympathy for Musharraf over his feud with the Supreme Court. The court was about to decide whether he could simultaneously lead the military and be President when martial law was declared and the chief justice put under house arrest. The same Supreme Court was also to decide on the merits of Musharraf's U.S.-backed deal with Bhutto to drop corruption charges against her and her husband Asif Zardari so she could return from exile to run for office and regain the Prime Ministership. Nevertheless, Bhutto said that "extra-constitutional" methods were unnecessary and that martial law will only exacerbate Islamic militancy and terrorism. Meanwhile, the capital of Islamabad was in lockdown, with no demonstrations in sight as the roads surrounding the Supreme Court building were blocked by tanks and barbed wire and lined with hundreds of security personnel.

TIME: What do you make of Musharraf's declaration of emergency?
Actually, we call it martial law. The constitution has been suspended and while Musharraf is terming it an emergency for international consumption, he has actually in his capacity of Chief of Army Staff suspended the constitution of Pakistan and promulgated a new provisional order. The result of this is that he has stopped democracy in its tracks. And he has given an extended life to his ruling PML-Q party.
I may mention that the PML-Q has some moderate elements in it, but the core strength of the Q comes from those people associated with General Zia ul Haq — the military dictator of the '80s that established the mujheddin — and it is these people whose governance has seen, by coincidence or otherwise, the growth of [Islamic] militancy in Pakistan. They are the ones that have presided over the signing of peace treaties and cease-fires in the tribal areas. They have lost control of our tribal areas.
The militants are knocking on the doors of Swat; they are eyeing the capital city of Islamabad. They have access to superior sources of plastic explosives and they have constructed bombs and improvised explosive devices to be used against my rally, against the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] bus [in Rawalpindi on Oct. 20], against officers, against the air force. They call it suicide bombing, but it is not suicide bombing. Our analysis is that these are IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] that are being placed and have been hushed up under the name of suicide bombings.
That's why we have requested international assistance on the inquiry of the bomb blasts that took place on my procession on October 19th, because it follows the same pattern. And we think intelligence cooperation should be between Pakistani police and international police agencies, Scotland Yard or the FBI. We want to get to the bottom of the culprits behind these blasts.

And what does this mean for the future of the country?
It is a very big problem. It means that dictatorship will be sustained until it is reversed. It is a clear breach of the understanding that Musharraf has with my party. We have been engaged with him for a period of time for a negotiated peaceful transfer to democracy. He has promised to retire as army chief. He has promised to hold fair elections, and implement fair election reform. Contrary to these promises, he has imposed emergency without consulting me. We advised him against doing this. And he chose to side with the hard-core elements of the ruling PML-Q. Now I feel that until democracy is restored we will be fueling the forces of extremism.

Does this mean that all negotiations with him are off? Are you pulling the plug?
We are not pulling any plug; he is the one that stopped negotiating once I returned to the country. He calls me up to condole, and then after that I heard that his people were going to come and visit me to talk about the second phase, which was the implementation of the fair election proposal followed by the balance of power between the presidency and the parliament. But they never came. They kept saying they would come, but they never did. They never showed up. So in fact they just bought time, and then suddenly when I was in Dubai they announced martial law. I caught the first plane back to be with my people who have suffered so much. My people who had sacrificed 158 lives — the final death toll of the Karachi blasts.

So what does this mean for negotiations? Are you done?
Well, he may break his word, but we don't. We keep our word; we keep our commitments. We went forward with the process that we thought was in the national interest. Which was to take this nuclear armed nation, which is a key country in this region, towards democracy, so that there would be stability so that we could unite the forces of moderation, so we could confront the forces of extremism. But unilaterally they broke the negotiations by the imposition of emergency. So now we are demanding a return to the constitution, Musharraf to retire as chief of army staff, and that he hold the elections on time as he earlier committed to us.
We told him in August during our talks in London, that there were issues with his eligibility and that he needed to have constitutional reforms like balance of power between the presidency and the parliament. That could help the country go through this period with stability. But he said no, "I am eligible." This martial law was imposed because he was expecting an adverse court order on his eligibility. Whereas the eligibility issue could have been settled by parliament if he was willing to pay the political price that we demanded. But he preferred to impose martial law over seeking a political solution. And that's the dangerous part, that's the part that worries me.

If he goes ahead and answers your demands, do you think you can work with him in good faith?
My faith has certainly been shaken, but I would ask what's the timetable? As we have seen, the promises are made but then they are broken. What we are talking about to restore good faith is up-front action. We are talking about up-front revival of the constitution, up-front retirement as chief of army staff and up-front elections on schedule, announced by November 15th, and held by January 15th. If he is prepared to take these measures, along with some others, then we can say that all that has occurred, we will let it drop. But if he is not prepared to do this, then it becomes very difficult to work with someone who makes a promise but cannot keep it.

And what about reinstating the Supreme Court?
Well, we think that the judiciary should be respected.

So would you want to see the reinstatement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry? And all the other dismissed judges?
Well, if there is a complaint against the judges, the government should follow the normal avenues of complaint. There are normal ways to address complaints against judges. You don't need extra-constitutional measures.

Do you think these judges were actually in the wrong?
I am not aware of the details but I know that General Musharraf has made some allegations against the judges, and they are allegations that they must respond to. They are very serious allegations. Without going into the merits of the allegations, I'm simply saying that there are ways to deal with these allegations of misconduct and not use them as a pretext for the imposition of martial law.

When Musharraf made his declaration of emergency rule, he said it was in the interest of fighting terrorism in Pakistan. Do you agree with him?
I agree that there is terrorism in the country, I believe it has spread since the 2002 elections when the People's Party was excluded from the government, but I don't believe martial law was declared to stop terrorism, I believe it was declared to stop an adverse decision by the Supreme Court on Musharraf's eligibility to remain as President and to keep the ruling PML-Q in power.

What kind of effect do you think martial law will have on terrorism?
This will worsen the situation for terrorism. It will take the focus of the army and the police away from fighting terrorists. The militants and terrorists would have wanted nothing better than a fresh confrontation between the people and the government. And it is to prevent instability that my party and I have taken the decision to have political negotiations with General Musharraf in order to weaken the terrorists. But I am afraid his actions have played into the terrorist's hands. And he should remedy it. All of us who have a stake in eliminating terrorism must all work together to reverse what has happened.