There was poetic justice in the conviction of Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari on corruption charges by the Ehtesab Bench of the Lahore High Court on April 15. Each was sentenced to five years in jail and fined US$8.6 million. Benazir, who travelled to London two days prior to the court verdict, said she would appeal to the supreme court. Zardari has been in jail for the last 30 months. The full drama is yet to be played out, but enough has happened to permanently change the Pakistani political landscape.
At last, members of Pakistan’s ruling elite are being nailed for a practice - stealing - that they had come to believe was a normal part of their job. The people of Pakistan have often lamented the law’s turning a blind eye to the criminal activities of the big fish, while eagerly and severely punishing relatively petty offences.
Benazir Bhutto would not have been surprised to be convicted; she knows too well that she and her husband are guilty of each and every charge levelled against them, and more. The real shock was that the people of Pakistan, especially her party members, took the whole affair in their stride and watched her travails largely with bemused contempt.
This reflects the experience (posthumous) of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; before he was hanged for murder in April 1979, he had boasted there would be violent protests from Peshawar to Karachi if the court’s sentence was carried out. In the event, there was hardly a whimper; if anything, many people felt that his execution was wholly justified.
Benazir’s sentence is less final, but it seems almost certain that she has entered the twilight of her political career. She cannot imagine not being in charge of the country which the Bhuttos have long regarded as a family fiefdom. But her fall from grace occurred long ago; she is perhaps the only person unaware of it. The people of Pakistan - or those who welcomed her with open arms as the daughter of a “martyred” leader - have been greatly disillusioned.
Benazir has been a roaring failure as a politician, despite the rave reviews she has often received in the besotted western press. Her second term as prime minister from October 1993 to November 1995 was even worse than her first. On both occasions, her husband Zardari milked the country dry. But it would be simplistic to blame her fall on him. She is clearly fully involved in the cases for which she has been convicted.
The case concerns a pre-shipment contract worth US$137.492 million that she personally awarded to Societe Generale de Surveillance S.A. (SGS), a Swiss company, while she was prime minister in 1994. SGS paid a 6 percent ($8.25 million) commission for this contract, into account number 552343 at the Geneva-based Union Bank of Switzerland. The commission was paid in the name of Bomer Finance Inc. The company is owned by Zardari.
It might still have proved difficult to convict Benazir on this. However, in her arrogance, she later used this account to pay £92,000 ($152,000) for a necklace that she purchased in London. Its total price was £117,000 ($194,000). This linked her directly with the account. It was also disgraceful extravagance for the leader of a poor country like Pakistan, and the people of Pakistan have been shocked to learn of it.
All of this was proven beyond doubt in court. When confronted with the news of her conviction, Benazir used the oldest trick in the book: she listed a litany of charges against prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family. All these may be true but they have no bearing on the issue of her own corruption.
The authorities have ordered officials in all four provinces to identify properties belonging to Benazir and Zardari, in case they fail to pay the fine. When obliged to declare her assets in June 1997, Benazir had claimed only Rs 16 million ($320,000) worth of assets in Pakistan. It now turns out that her known assets are worth more than Rs 235 million. Zardari’s are around Rs 5 billion. All these are in addition to the billions of dollars they have stashed away in Britain, France, Switzerland and other parts of the world.
Meanwhile, news came from Britain that the Rockwood Estate, better known as Surrey Palace, had been repossessed by the mortgage company for non-payment of mortgage installments. The property is worth £32.5 million ($54 million). Purchased by Benazir in 1995, it has a landing strip, a swimming pool, tennis courts and stables for horses.
Benazir’s contention that the members of the present administration are also corrupt is undeniable, however. On April 23, Gohar Ayub, minister for power, presented the country’s senate with a list of 49 major defaulters who were cheating on their electricity and water bills.
The list - prepared by the Army-led Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) - includes several senior members of the ruling Muslim League, including senator Nisar Ali Khan, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Syeda Abida Hussain and Chaudhry Jaffar Iqbal. Other well-known figures include Nisar Mohammad Khan, Pir Mazharul Haq, Mohammad Azam Hoti, Ghaniur Rehman, and Aftab Sherpao.
Pakistan is indeed full of crooks. At long last, however, some of them are being identified and a few even punished for their crimes. It is a start.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999