Bhutto Brought to Book

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NISID HAJARIBy her own account, Benazir Bhutto took the news well. A cadre from her Pakistan People's Party called her in London from outside a courthouse in Rawalpindi, to let her know that she and her husband had been convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to jail. I knew it was coming, she says she told the official. This is nothing.

Unfortunately for the former Prime Minister, last Thursday's verdict most definitely was something: the first time in Pakistan's 51-year history that anyone has been disqualified from politics for graft. The court--one of the Ehtesab, or Accountability, benches formed by Prime Minister Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif in 1997 to investigate official corruption--found both Bhutto and husband Asif Ali Zardari guilty of accepting kickbacks worth $9 million from the Socit Gnrale de Surveillance (SGS), a Swiss company hired by Bhutto during her second stint as Prime Minister to improve Islamabad's collection of customs revenue. Both were sentenced to five years in prison, fined $8.6 million and banned from holding parliamentary seats (and therefore the prime ministership) for seven years. No matter how the resilient Bhutto looks at it, the news is not good.

For one thing, her troubles may be just beginning. Bhutto struck a defiant pose in London. This is nothing but the murder of justice by a kangaroo court, she railed to TIME the night of the verdict. But as soon as she returns to Pakistan--which she has pledged to do within a week--she faces immediate arrest. (Her lawyers hope to keep her out of jail while they appeal.) The verdict is only the first in a series of cases pending against the couple, which involve further allegations of kickbacks, undeclared foreign bank accounts and the doling out of 1,600 jobs at Pakistan International Airlines. PPP spokesman Farhaullah Babr says that Zardari, already in jail on drug-smuggling charges, took a long-term view when he heard the verdict. For me it does not change anything, said the former businessman. I get out of jail in the morning [to attend court proceedings] and go back in the evening.


Then, too, the case against the couple seems strong. In February 1997 the Swiss government became a party to Islamabad's suit and turned over documents relating to the SGS customs contract. Bhutto's former principal secretary testified against her, and prosecutors wielded two letters from the head of an SGS subsidiary, each promising to wire a 6% commission to a Zardari shell company if SGS won the contract (which was awarded without open bidding). In June 1995, Ehtesab officials say that $100,803 was paid into the offshore account of one of these--Nassam Overseas Inc. Records from the other, Bomer Finance Inc., indicate that in October 1994, a $159,516 payment was made from the company's Union Bank of Switzerland account to a British jeweler.

Bhutto and her husband argue that the charges are part of a vendetta waged against them and the PPP by Nawaz Sharif and his rival Pakistan Muslim League. The Ehtesab Bureau is led by a known Bhutto foe, Senator Saifur Rehman, and the cases against the couple are the only ones it has so far brought before the court. One of the two judges hearing this particular case, Justice Malik Qayyum, is the son of the man who sentenced Bhutto's father to death in 1978, as well as the brother of a PML legislator. Early in the trial the court was forced to move from Lahore--a Nawaz Sharif stronghold--to Rawalpindi. Last month the Supreme Court again chastised the bench, this time for rushing a verdict and not allowing the defense to present its case fully. This verdict is a stigma not on me or my husband, but on those who have given it, says Bhutto.

Indeed, considering the welter of claims and counterclaims, it isn't clear whether the court's judgment will reassure or worry those concerned about Pakistan's rampant corruption. On the one hand the sentence could convince investors that authorities are serious about cracking down on graft. It is the first important step toward cleansing the political system of corrupt elements, says Information Minister Mushahid Hussain. Yet the Sharif family's Ittifaq Group, one of the 10 largest conglomerates in Pakistan, has itself been accused of tax evasion and accepting kickbacks from Korean companies. Even those who believe the Bhuttos are guilty aren't convinced that others will be similarly brought to book.

Nor does the conviction necessarily bode well for Pakistan's immediate future. The day after the decision was handed down, Islamabad's three English-language dailies led with three different stories: the verdict, the test-firing of a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads into neighboring India, and the possible reimposition of U.S. trade sanctions on both India and Pakistan for their recent missile tests. All three are potentially disruptive, particularly if Bhutto attempts to rally mass protest upon her return. (Only scattered demonstrations were reported last week.) The calm she now claims to feel may not last for long.

Reported by Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad