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Bhutto eyes Pakistan return, fears assassination

The former prime minister's plans to seek a third term may be derailed by court case on amnesty for corruption charges.

By / October 15, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand

Exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is due to return to Pakistan on Thursday under a tentative power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf, who was reelected last week to another term in office. Bhutto plans to contest parliamentary elections in January and seek a third term as prime minister. Her path was cleared recently when General Musharraf declared an amnesty on outstanding corruption charges against Ms. Bhutto and her husband, as well as other politicians accused of graft prior to Pakistan's 1999 coup.

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But both that sweeping amnesty and Musharraf's reelection face challenges in Pakistan's increasingly assertive courts that could derail their pact. The Supreme Court is considering the legality of Musharraf running for president while retaining his role as Army chief. It's also hearing petitions against the amnesty for politicians, including Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the country's largest.

Now, Bhutto has told the Guardian newspaper that she suspects that retired military officers aligned to Islamic extremists could be plotting her assassination, an allegation that a government minister called a "ridiculous claim." Elaborate security measures are already in place for when Bhutto returns to Pakistan, including thousands of security forces and bulletproof cars to shield her. A Taliban commander, Baitullah Masood, has threatened to deploy suicide bombers against her, but Bhutto told the newspaper that the real threat came from within the powerful military establishment.

"I'm not worried about Baitullah Masood, I'm worried about the threat within the government," she said. "People like Baitullah Masood are just pawns. It is those forces behind him that have presided over the rise of extremism and militancy in my country."
Ms Bhutto singled out as her most potent enemy retired military officers "who have fought the jihad".
"They have a lot of supporters and sympathisers within the echelons of administration and intelligence," she said.

Pakistani government officials have urged Bhutto to delay her return until after the Supreme Court rules on the presidential amnesty, Agence France-Presse reports. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said Bhutto could face corruption charges if the court overturned the amnesty, known as a "reconciliation ordinance."

"If the court declares the national reconciliation ordinance null and void, then all cases and charges against her will be reinstated.
"Such a situation could create political turmoil," he told AFP. "But she is free to come back, this is just friendly advice," he added.

Bhutto is a scion of Pakistan's preeminent political dynasty and a survivor of the country's treacherous politics, the British Broadcasting Corp. reports. Twice elected as prime minister, she was dismissed for corruption on both occasions by the president. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted by a military coup in 1977 and executed two years later. Ms. Bhutto spent five years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, then set up an opposition party in exile. She returned to Pakistan and won her first election in 1988.

At the height of her popularity – shortly after her first election – she was one of the most high-profile women leaders in the world.
Young and glamorous, she successfully portrayed herself as a refreshing contrast to the overwhelmingly male-dominated political establishment.
But after her second fall from power, her name came to be seen by some as synonymous with corruption and bad governance.