Monday November 12, 2007
Hopes for a third term for Benazir Bhutto, twice kicked out of government for corruption and incompetence, have been thrown into turmoil by the emergency rule. But her ambitions ultimately still depend on whether the amnesty on her corruption charges, granted to her last month by the national reconciliation ordinance, will be upheld in the new supreme court.
Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari - nicknamed Mr 10% over alleged extortion - faced eight counts of taking tens of millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks. But whatever decision the court arrives at, the couple also have to contend with money laundering proceedings in Switzerland and Spain, and a civil case in London involving an expensive Surrey mansion.
As the president's ordinance only deals with offences up to 1999, investigations in Pakistan could continue into allegations that the pair paid about $2m in illegal kickbacks to Saddam Hussein under the oil-for-food programme.
The controversy surrounding Bhutto's financial affairs has been compounded by reports showing she and her family have worldwide assets worth about 90bn Pakistan rupees ($1.5bn). Despite voluminous evidence, some from the British government, the Bhuttos deny all the charges.
Among the charges in Pakistan are allegations that the Bhuttos skimmed $2m in commissions from a 1990s deal to buy thousands of duty-free Ursus tractors from Poland. The money went into a Swiss bank account. Christine Junod, a Geneva magistrate, says documentary evidence "establishes beyond doubt that these commissions, under the cover of alleged consultancy fees, were meant to remunerate the illicit advantages obtained by Ursus from the Pakistani administration, thanks to the interventions of Asif Zardari".
A second case involves a Dubai-based Pakistani gold bullion dealer who allegedly paid $10m to a Bhutto company in the British Virgin Islands for the exclusive right to import gold, again losing the country millions of dollar in duties. Zardari, who has served six years on corruption charges, is also accused of evading duties on the import of a £55,000 armoured BMW.
A fourth case, involving Swiss banks, is moving towards a trial in Geneva. In this the couple are accused of taking kickbacks for the award of contracts to two Swiss firms employed to stop customs fraud. In 2003 a Swiss magistrate found the couple guilty, sentenced them to six months in prison and ordered them to pay $12m back to the Pakistan government.
The paper trail connecting Benazir Bhutto to the case started with a moment of extravagance. Five years before, she had bought a £117,000 diamond necklace in London; part of that was paid for by one of the Swiss firms identified in the investigation. Lawyers for the Bhuttos challenged the judgment, a move that required the case be reopened. Last month the Swiss authorities said they would go ahead.
The authoritative Volker report into the oil-for-food scandal identified the company Petroline FZC as having received oil contracts worth £145m in return for paying illicit surcharges to Iraq of $2m. Pakistan's national accountability bureau has produced documents which show that Bhutto was the company chairwoman. Some of the profits went to firms in Spain, where another criminal investigation into money laundering is still active.
The Surrey mansion, Rockwood House, was bought in 1995, apparently owned through a chain of firms and trusts, involving addresses in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Liechtenstein. Zardari denied, for eight years, that he was the owner despite instructing a builder with plans for a helipad, nine-hole golf course and polo pony paddock. Crates of valuable artefacts were shipped from Karachi. In 2004, when creditors forced the property into a liquidation sale, the Pakistani government claimed the proceeds. Lawyers for Zardari then appeared, claiming he was the beneficial owner.
The money from the sale is still in the liquidators' bank account, though a high court judge said the Pakistani government had a reasonable case, stating the money came via corruption. The case continues through the courts with Zardari repeatedly claiming to be too ill to mount a rebuttal.
Trail of corruption and kickback charges still in wings for opposition leader | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited