Stench of corruption still hanging over Benazir

Although Benazir Bhutto made a triumphant return to Pakistan last month, boosted by the knowledge that she enjoys the support of the US, the main power-broker in Pakistani politics, many in Pakistan still regard her as irreversibly tainted by allegations of corruption. Her return was made possible by a controversial amnesty against charges in Pakistan granted to her by president Perwez Musharraf, which may yet be overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. However, she still faces several cases outside Pakistan, which tend to disprove her supporters’ claims that the charges have been fabricated by political opponents in Pakistan.

In 2003, a judge in Geneva convicted Benazir, her husband, Asif Zardari. and several close associates of receiving around $15 million in kickbacks from Pakistani government contracts with two Swiss governments while she was prime minister. Benazir and Zardari were each sentenced to 180 days in prison, which they have not served, and ordered to repay $11.9 million to the government of Pakistan. They appealed the case, which is now being reheard, along with further serious charges of aggravated money-laundering. Benazir’s supporters suggest that the Swiss case will collapse as a result of the Pakistani amnesty, but this is not necessarily the case. Further developments in the case are expected soon.

Another high-profile case concerns the Rockwood country estate in Surrey, England, which the Pakistan government allege was bought by Benazir and Zardari using the proceeds of corruption. For eight years after the issue was first raised, Benazir and Zardari denied that the estate belonged to them. In 2004, however, Zardari suddenly admitted owning it. Two years later, the judge hearing the case ruled that there was a “reasonable prospect” that the Pakistani government would establish in future court action that Benazir and her husband had bought the estate with “the fruits of corruption”. However, as this is a civil case bought by the Pakistani government, it may not be pursued if Musharraf’s amnesty is upheld by the Supreme Court.

Potentially the most serious charges that Bhutto faces, however, pertain to her period in exile. In 2005, a company called Petroline FZC, based in the UAE, was one of more than 2,000 companies reported by a US inquiry to have breached UN sanctions against Iraq by making illegal payments to Saddam Hussein’s regime before 2003. Petroline FZC was found to have traded $144 million of Iraqi oil, and made $2 million of illegal payments to the Iraqi regime. According to documents held by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, Benazir was the chairman of Petroline FZC during this time. Financial transactions linked to Petroline FZC are reportedly also being investigated by Spanish authorities. These allegations are particularly serious for Benazir because they concern international institutions rather than Pakistani ones, and because they occurred after the period 1986-1999 covered by Musharraf’s amnesty.

Her hope may be that she could make herself so useful to the US in Pakistan that it will use its considerable influence to prevent legal action from being taken against her anywhere else in the world. Pakistan’s elites have always sought to use political power for their own purposes, rather than the interests of their country or its people, but this would be taking political opportunism to truly unprecedented levels.

Further Reading (External Links):

[1]. HOUSE OF GRAFT: Tracing the Bhutto Millions — A special report.; Bhutto Clan Leaves Trail of Corruption
by John F. Burns, January 9, 1998, The New York Times

[2]. A Background Check Far From Ordinary
by John F. Burns, January 9, 1998, The New York Times

[3]. An Opulent Estate, Quietly Bought in England’s Countryside
by John F. Burns, January 9, 1998, The New York Times