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.
| 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.
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.
Musharraf's amnesty, if it goes ahead, could be lucrative for Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who are believed to be the beneficiaries of about $1.5 billion in frozen Swiss bank accounts, The Sunday Times (UK) reports. Bhutto has denied holding any overseas bank accounts, including the disputed Swiss accounts.
Bhutto and Zardari were alleged to have amassed a fortune from kickbacks on government contracts during her two terms as prime minister. Their assets allegedly included a 10-bedroom, mock-Tudor Surrey mansion and, according to anticorruption investigators, £740m in Swiss bank accounts.
Hassan Waseem Afzal, a highflying civil servant who led the Bhutto investigation for 10 years, said last week that he believed the deal with Musharraf to drop the corruption charges would unlock the frozen accounts.
The accounts were registered in the names of Bhutto's mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, and Zardari, a former minister. But Afzal said the Pakistan government and a Swiss magistrate had obtained evidence that Bhutto herself was a beneficiary ….
Bhutto and Zardari, who spent seven years in prison in Pakistan on corruption charges, were convicted in absentia by a Swiss court in 2003. The Swiss magistrate found that during her second term as prime minister she enriched herself or her husband with kickbacks from a government contract with two Swiss companies.
Amid the political dealmaking in Islamabad, Pakistani troops are battling armed militants in the tribal belt on the Pakistani-Afghan border. Last week, the fighting intensified in North Waziristan, with hundreds dead. A report by Asia Times highlights the US government's role in brokering a political deal that keeps Pakistan fully engagedin the battle against Taliban forces that threaten stability in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's political transition is the most important link in US strategy in the southwest Asian region and to some extent in the Middle East. The US State Department's Richard Boucher has visited Pakistan and United Arab Emirates (where Bhutto has been living) six times in the past nine months in an attempt to reconcile Musharraf and Bhutto and thus ensure a friendly government in Islamabad, thus retaining an ally in the "war on terror" as well as curbing any adventurous designs by the Pakistani military and safeguarding Pakistan's nuclear assets.
While last week's political machinations were under way in Pakistan, the US was providing intelligence to Islamabad about a massive regrouping of the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas in preparation for a big campaign against NATO forces in southeast Afghanistan. The US feared that a disruption of the political dialogue would mean a hiatus in Pakistan's political transition, and delay military operations against the thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces gathering in North Waziristan before launching attacks on the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Gardez and Ghazni, and then Kabul with unending waves of suicide missions. If the Taliban were allowed to hatch their plans unmolested during a political vacuum in Islamabad, Washington believed the Taliban would seize the upper hand in Afghanistan.
By returning to Pakistan on Musharraf's terms, Bhutto is taking a gamble on her grass roots popularity, according to The Chicago Tribune. Her association with Musharraf could tarnish her reputation as a politician who stands up to the military.
Her popularity has also taken a hit since she started talking with Musharraf, whose presidential win in front of parliament Oct. 6 is being challenged in court. In July, the two met in Abu Dhabi, after months of rumors of negotiations. Only 35 percent of 4,000 Pakistanis surveyed in late August and early September support a power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, according to a poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute.