KARACHI, PAKISTAN — RETURNING to long-held tradition, Pakistan's superior courts have once again become the forum for political battle. Eleven years ago, the Supreme Court decided to execute a prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for conspiracy to murder. Two days ago, his daughter, Benazir, also a former prime minister, appeared at a special tribunal. Her 20-month-long government was dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan Aug. 6 on charges of gross misconduct and corruption.
This time, Ms. Bhutto's life is not at stake, but her political career may be. If the charges brought against her by the caretaker government are proven, she stands to be barred from political activity for seven years and excluded from the Oct. 24 national elections.
Bhutto faces four charges, all relating to decisions she is said to have made as prime minister. The cases concern the awarding of contracts allegedly to friends and relatives, which the caretaker government claims cost the country millions of dollars.
With Pakistan's elections just 22 days away, Maleeha Lodhi, a leading Islamabad columnist says the courts will have as much to do with the outcome of the polls as the voters. Bhutto aims to make maximum political capital out of the ``sympathy factor'' she says will ensue from these ``trumped up charges'' being heard in ``kangeroo courts.''
The tribunal hearings have assumed the dimensions of high court drama. At her first appearance in court Sunday in Karachi, Bhutto arrived with hundreds of party supporters who crammed the tiny courtroom. A heavy sense of history and d'ej`a vu hung over the courtroom.
Bhutto herself has not been in court for five years, when she faced another detention order, one of a series that kept her in jail or under house arrest for six years during martial law from 1977 to 1985.
Bhutto's defense team of five lawyers are familiar faces. Her principal advocate is Yahya Bakhtiar, her father's lawyer and formerly her own attorney general. His assistant, Aitzas Ahsan, is her former interior minister and human rights activist during martial law.
The Pakistan People's Party leader is due in court again today in Lahore to face another round of charges. She claims such trials are inevitable for those who speak out for freedom in Pakistan.
``I am being brought to book because I speak of freedom. There are certain powers in this country who do not like to hear the word freedom,'' she declared in a comment seen as a reference to the armed forces and the president.
``They will not disqualify me'' she said confidently. ``I have done nothing wrong.'' Those in the caretaker government are corrupt, and should be put on trial, she says. Her lawyer, Mr. Bakhtiar alleged in court that during the regime of the late Gen. Zia ul-Haq foreign exchanges reserves remained at a meager $100 million, despite the massive inflow of United States aid and money from heroin trafficking. ``Where has it all gone?'' he asked.
Bakhtiar pleaded for an adjournment of the trial until after the elections so that Bhutto could continue her election campaign. Such a decision, he said, would serve the country and the interests of justice. He got an adjournment of 11 days.