September Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

Trouble loves company. No one knows this better than the self-exiled chairperson-for-life of the Pakistan People’s Party, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. She has remained separated from her jailed husband for seven years. Her mother’s health is falling fast. Her party is facing internal problems. Now the 50-year-old Ms Bhutto stands under the shadow of a conviction by a Swiss Investigating Officer, involving over 11 million US dollars and a diamond necklace.

The conviction is based on the findings that “…Mrs Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari were paid by SGS and Cotecna (two international firms), in connection with the inspection contracts (pre-shipment inspection of goods), as a result of their unfair management of the public interest of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and laundered in concert with Mr Jens Schlegelmilch (a lawyer known to the Bhutto family for 20 years) and her husband in Swiss banks.”

The total amount in question is over 11 million US dollars. The conviction carries a suspended sentence of six months, and entails fines and recovery of the money. The accounts of Bomer Finance Inc and Nassam Overseas Inc at Barclays Geneva — the two front companies — that were allegedly used to transfer kickbacks, have also been frozen.

Apart from detailing the deals behind the grant of contracts to SGS and Cotecna, the conviction also says that Benazir Bhutto used Bomer Finance’s account to partially pay for a diamond necklace worth 117,000 pounds sterling. Ms Bhutto has already gone into appeal against the conviction and hopes to get the sentence overturned.

The legal victory Ms Bhutto is looking for is a way to redeem her political image which has taken some hammering. The conviction fits the general perception that the financial records of the country’s political leaders are not exactly above board. It has also given her political opponents a reason to regurgitate the charge, that while in power, Zardari and Bhutto liberally happily helped themselves to unclean money.

However, the conviction has not caused Benazir Bhutto’s political ruination. Not yet, that is. Her party has rallied behind her. “The establishment in Pakistan has used the usual trick of character assassination to weaken her politically. This is part of the same campaign that Nawaz Sharif launched against her, but to no avail,” says Raja Pervez, a member of the National Assembly and central leader of the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians. In the true tradition of party die-hards, Mr Pervez, who recently travelled with Ms Bhutto to Italy and found her in good spirits, thinks that the Investigation Magistrate was bribed and influenced by the National Accountability Bureau. “First, no notice was served to Ms Bhutto and her husband. They were not given the chance of a hearing. Second, he gave the verdict on his last day in office. And then we also know how closely in touch NAB has been with him,” says Mr Pervez.

These are contestable claims. Chairman National Accountability Bureau, Lt. General Munir Hafiez says it is an insult to the Swiss judicial system to suggest that they would be influenced by any outside element. “We had made a legal request to the Swiss government, which was cognizant of the matter already, as this case had been there since 1997. They carried out their own investigations, used their own evidence, gathered by their own investigators and came up with a conviction that is as objective and neutral as it gets,” says the General.

NAB officials dealing with the case say that it was actually the Swiss government, who moved against Zardari and Bhutto. They have also handed further evidence over to NAB under the Request for Legal Assistance and Mutual Legal Assistance arrangement. “We are looking at this evidence closely,” say officials, who refuse to divulge whether this conviction and the additional evidence that they have received will lead to more cases against Ms Bhutto.

At present Ms Benazir Bhutto is facing five NAB cases at home. Privately NAB officials feel that Ms Bhutto is caught in a tight corner. “Leaving aside the over-simplified arguments that are being used against the conviction, Ms Bhutto has to deal with the solid verdict of a case, and the fact that she decided not to contest its many claims. She kept silent even when Pakistan was made a damaged party to the case in October 2002. She thought the storm would blow over. It did not and has now hit her in the face,” says a NAB official.

So far Benazir Bhutto’s reaction to the tightening legal noose has been to turn up the political propaganda volume. “Internationally, her name evokes awe and respect. Domestically, her party has got the maximum number of votes, well over 29 per cent of the total voter cast. This is because of her. She is beyond being hurt by cheap legal tactics,” says Mr Pervez.

This rave rhetoric is not just hollow sentiment. It speaks of the mad commitment of Mr Pervez and others of his ilk towards Ms Bhutto as she grapples with the grim consequences of the conviction. And this unquestioning party loyalty has stood her in good stead. Whether in London or in Dubai, she continues to be a force to reckon with because of the bedrock of her political support, the party has by and large, stayed with her. She may also draw comfort from the fact that her political opponents have a history of botching-up badly and the legal system is too slow to catch high-level corruption. Senior government officials dealing with the cases against Ms Bhutto and her husband pin the couple’s political survival to the loopholes in the judicial system. “Look at Asif Ali Zardari. He has been forcing delays at court hearings. And during his years in custody, he has become a symbol of defiance and resistance. It is amazing. Not so long ago, he was loathed by his own party members. If he had been convicted, he would have been a non-issue by now,” says a senior official in Islamabad.

It was probably the same mix of incompetence and good fortune that went into the Lahore High Court’s judgement of April 15, 1999, condemning Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari to five years imprisonment and 8.6 million US dollars in fines in the same SGS and Cotecna case. On April 6, 2001, the Supreme Court of Pakistan annulled the conviction. The Supreme Court judgement reflected poorly on the probity of the two High Court judges, and exposed the underhand deals and the twisting of the judicial arms that lay behind the first conviction.

Interestingly, however, the Supreme Court never questioned the facts of the case and the evidence that was involved in the annulment of the conviction by the two judges. To Ms Bhutto’s benefit, the conduct of those who ran accountability campaigns against the Bhutto family too has been scandalous. Former President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who dismissed the first Benazir Bhutto government on corruption charges, had no problem in accepting her the second time round on the condition that she backed his second bid for presidency — something that never materialised.

Former senator Saif-ur Rehman, chief of the Sharif government’s Accountability Bureau, forerunner of the present National Accountability Bureau, did even better: he offered an unsolicited apology to Asif Ali Zardari and Benazir Bhutto for running motivated campaigns against them. (Raja Pervez claims that Mr Rehman went to the extreme of kneeling before Mr Zardari, touching his feet, and apologising to him in public).

This time around, it is a different ball-game say NAB officials. “Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari committed a crime and they have to pay for it,” says an official associated with the investigations against the couple.

For the time being, the Swiss conviction is overshadowed by the ongoing political battle between the Musharraf regime and Benazir Bhutto. The President’s personal aversion to both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto is well-known. In his scheme of things, neither has any place, particularly Benazir Bhutto. This casts most official claims of a corruption against Ms Bhutto in a political colour.

But Switzerland is another place. It is not a battleground for Pakistani politics. Nor do courts and investigators there work under jackboots. A final verdict from the Swiss Courts on Ms Bhutto’s corruption will matter.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.