IT'S now clear that prime minister Nawaz Sharif is keen to keep his predecessor Benazir Bhutto on the defensive, her poor presence in Parliament notwithstanding. The formal indictment on July 5 of her husband Asif Ali Zardari in the murder of her estranged brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto is a clear pointer.
Almost a month after the release of the report of the judicial tribunal investigating the killing of Murtaza and his bodyguards, Zardari and 18 others, including former Intelligence Bureau chief Masood Sharif and former Karachi police chief Shoaib Suddle, were finally charged. The tribunal had held that the killing had been ordered by a "higher authority".
For their part, Zardari and the other accused all pleaded not guilty after being indicted at a court hearing held in Karachi Jail for security reasons. The murder case had been registered on a complaint by Murtaza's Lebanese-born widow Ghinwa, who leads her husband's breakaway faction of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). "A plan was made to trap the colleagues of Murtaza Bhutto and to kill his bodyguards and other armed companions and show it as a genuine encounter," with Murtaza's party being the aggressor and the police firing in self-defence, the report said. Apparently, it added, there was no plan to kill Murtaza in view of clear directions of the then prime minister "not to touch him".
Hence, the tribunal concluded that "the concerned planners must have known the risk of Murtaza becoming a victim and, therefore, the plan must have been cleared by a much higher authority" than the two senior local police officials, named as Wajid Durrani (a former SSP) and Suddle.
Zardari rejected these charges, saying: "I am innocent. The government has jailed me for no crime. They want to harass and mentally torture me, but I am not afraid." Zardari was detained the day Benazir was sacked in November 1996 by President Farooq Leghari on charges of misrule and corruption. Benazir refuted the charges at the time and even now defends her husband, saying that he and the others have been arrested in a "false case".
But a jubilant leader of Ghinwa Bhutto's party, Ahsan Bhatti, says: "We are satisfied that our hero's killers have been indicted. But the real satisfaction will be when they are hanged." Another supporter, Mohammed Sharif, goes a bit further and declares: "Ours and our hero's soul will be in peace when Zardari and other murderers are hanged publicly."
For Zardari, 43, this is a second stint behind bars. He was in jail for two-and-a-half years after Benazir was sacked in 1990. Despite her defence of her husband, the general perception in Pakistan is that Zardari is single-handedly responsible for the downfall of her two governments.
And this perception is harboured not just in opposition circles or in the media, as Benazir would like people to believe. Even some of her closest aides and advisors squarely blame Zardari for her downfall. "It was not just the loot and plunder of these three years which destroyed the government's image," a close Benazir aide opines. "It was also the stubbornness with which Bibi (Benazir) constantly defended Asif and his buddies in public and in private that did the real damage." With Zardari currently incarcerated without the filing of any formal charges of corruption, a massive exercise is under way to finally nail him. In this connection, a number of persons close to him have been grilled and speculation is rife about many of them breaking under pressure and willing to spill the beans.
And, compared to his jail stint in the early '90s, Zardari may find the going much tougher this time round. Then, none of the charges of corruption which were levelled against him could be proved and his wife went on the offensive. But the murder charge may force Benazir to maintain a low profile and keep quiet on the government's performance, at least for the time being.
Which is exactly what Sharif, whose top priority is to push through a series of economic and constitutional reforms, wants. "When this phase is over, then there will be a possibility of a compromise and Zardari may be released as the government will not pursue the Murtaza case. Until then the sword will keep on hanging on Zardari's head," says a senior bureaucrat in Islamabad. At least that should give Zardari and Benazir some hope.