February 29, 2020
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Sullied In Surrey

Details of Benazir's Rockwood House mar her political future

Sullied In Surrey
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HE might not know it, but Paul Keating may have given quite a turn to Pakistan's history. Just when Benazir Bhutto thought the corruption story was all about Nawaz Sharif; just after she said she'd return to Pakistan, in came the builder with a complaint about unpaid bills from her husband Asif Zardari for the Rockwood House sitting on a 355-acre estate in leafy Surrey. In the face of the evidence Keating's presented following a writ in a London court, it could well mean the end of her political career. Few doubted that the Surrey mansion was a spinoff from corruption involving Benazir and her husband. Given the details Keating disclosed in an interview to The Guardian, she'll find it impossible to deny it all and expect to be believed. Her husband is corrupt, she is at least a liar.

A government that can charge Sharif with crimes punishable with death cannot ignore what stands revealed now about Benazir. And after the string of pious announcements against corruption, the military regime is unlikely now to deal with Bhutto despite her overtures. Gen Pervez Musharraf will have to turn to that once-fast bowler, or stay with himself.

Rockwood House has already come to be known as the Surrey Palace in Pakistan, its palatial proportions only confirmed by the first inside view of the house courtesy Keating. The palace was being fitted out under the supervision of Javed Pasha, who runs a radio and PR company in London and is a close associate of Zardari. The estate was later bought through Romina Properties Ltd, an offshore company, with money that came through Olton Consolidated Ltd, another offshore company.

Keating came out with an inventory of what appears like a royal loot from Pakistan by Zardari. More than 7.5 tonnes of freight was delivered to Surrey Palace in February and March '96. This, according to Keating, contained 14 antique rifles with the Zardari name engraved on them, 19 bundles of carpets, a 30-ft cutglass Italian table, wood carvings, several statues, 16 oil paintings and a stuffed tiger. And many of these objects were delivered from the Pakistani High Commission in London. Keating was told by Pasha that these were the couple's personal property. Keating took pictures of all the objects, and now has them ready for the courts.

Curtains were ordered for the bedrooms at a cost of £50,000. The bathrooms were in marble; the master-bedroom was bomb-proof. A security system was installed at a cost of £70,000. There were plans for a stud farm, a helipad, a nine-hole golf course and an extension of the indoor swimming pool.

The builders were asked not to disclose who the house was for. But the leak came through Zardari himself, Keating said. "He went to a local pub in Brook-the Dog and Pheasant-and offered to buy the place. When told it wasn't for sale, we had to build a replica of the bar in the basement of Rockwood House. I'd say Mr Zardari was not the subtlest of men."

Keating reveals how it all fell apart in October '96. "I think Zardari intended the house to be their family home," Keating said. "The plan went wrong when he was arrested for corruption." Pasha told Keating to stop work and pack the artefacts. "We were told they weren't needed in the house any more. We were told to make sure we weren't being followed." So, 90 per cent of the goods were packed into lorries and taken to other destinations.

Keating has sued Pasha, his wife Shabnam and their company fms International Ltd for £375,000. Pasha has said he was not acting for the company that commissioned the work. In Pakistan, the controversy has become an immediate test for Gen Musharraf. There has been no move yet from the 'chief executive' to ask Britain to trace these Pakistani treasures that may still be in the country somewhere. And not everything has been moved-the Italian table is still there, as also two seven-foot carvings from Pakistan. Keating's willing to give the Pakistani government the inventory and photographs of all the items that were shipped in. His problem is, no one from Pakistan is asking for them.

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