Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

'Power Cannot Be Carved Up On A Dictator's Table'

'Power Cannot Be Carved Up On A Dictator's Table'

In an interview from Pakistan with our Washington correspondent , the new co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party discusses the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto, his concerns about Pakistan's ability to hold free elections, and his plans fo

Ashish Kumar Sen: You have refused to allow investigating authorities to exhume Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto's body. How can the controversy surrounding her death be laid to rest without this being done?

Asif Ali Zardari: How can we trust the regime to handle this investigation? All of us know that Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. The doctors who first tried to revive her had clearly stated that they saw bullet wounds--entry and exit. The doctors were then threatened and hushed up. The authorities have all along been trying to cover up and changed their versions.

In medico-legal cases it is the responsibility of the government to carry out a postmortem. The doctors examined her but now the regime says that they are not aware. I came from Dubai after six hours of the event when the body had already been sealed in the casket. Within no time the crime scene was hosed down. Three different versions of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto 's death were given in three days by the highest officials in the country.

Most Pakistanis believe that elements within the government machinery, in cahoots with the intelligence agencies, were directly responsible for this attack. So under such circumstances, how can we expect Pakistani authorities to conduct a fair and honest investigation, even if after exhuming the body? What good would be done by desecrating the last remains of my wife when the entire investigation is being controlled and manipulated by the regime and a massive cover up is quite obvious?

The question of exhumation of the body is a diversion from the real issue. Why the doctors' statements were not formally recorded and their findings altered if there was even the slightest doubt about the cause of death? There was no doubt whatsoever, which is why the police also did not seek an autopsy and the doctors and police officers are being pressured to keep quiet or change their statements.

This is why we are asking for a U.N. investigation into the assassination. While we would assist the Scotland Yard investigators who have been called only to assist the Pakistani investigators and not to carry out independent investigations, we are concerned at how tightly the international experts' involvement in investigation is being controlled by the Musharraf regime.

We need a larger political investigation under the auspices of the U.N. which will be an independent probe to identify the sponsors, financiers, organizers and perpetrators of the crime. The regime says that al Qaeda is involved. It has also been claiming that al Qaeda operates from across the Pakistani borders. So if by government's own admission it is a case of international terrorism, why it should not invite U.N. investigators? We also need an investigation into why the government changed its version and into the cover up that followed the assassination.

Had the regime investigated the October 18th massacre that targeted Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, she may be alive today. Instead of hunting down the assailants, the regime covered up that probe as well, providing impunity to terrorists that struck the first night she landed in Pakistan.

The Bush Administration continues to see President Musharraf as a steadfast ally. Are you concerned that this relationship may undermine the growth of democracy in Pakistan?

Yes. As long as the remnants of dictatorship receive international support, democracy in Pakistan will be undermined. Since 9/11, Pakistan has received over $10 billion in overt and covert assistance. No one knows how it has been spent. Many think that this assistance has propped up the dictatorship rather than the people of the country. Musharraf rigged the 2002 elections, but the international community seems to acquiesce with it. The regime has harassed political opponents, removed and detained Supreme Court judges and lawyers; changed the constitution to suit one man; imposed emergency; and curbed media freedom. Hundreds of ordinary citizens have disappeared under the garb of "war on terror". The people expected the international community to work for restoration of democracy and basic rights in Pakistan. The people of Pakistan are sometimes puzzled as to why the international community which claims to be fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for democracy is tolerating dictatorship in Pakistan.

Should US aid to Pakistan be made conditional?

The people of Pakistan should continue to receive international economic assistance. However, international assistance particularly the military assistance needs to be linked to democratic progress and free and fair elections. The regime in Pakistan should be made to understand that the international assistance is for the people, the 170 million people of the country, and not for sustaining the dictatorship. So if the regime uses international aid to wage war against its own people it will not be regarded as aid to the people of Pakistan. The first step toward ensuring Pakistan's transition to democracy is free, transparent and fair elections on February 18, in accordance with the Constitution, under an independent Election Commission to guarantee that such elections are free and fair, and under open international and independent monitoring of such elections. The international community must ensure free, fair and transparent elections, the release of all political prisoners including judges and lawyers, the freedom of the media and the normal pursuit of political activity with full security of all national political leaders. We urge that international aid to Pakistan be further expanded to include economic and social development under an elected, democratic government.

Mr Musharraf in a recent interview said Ms Bhutto was in part to blame for her death since she emerged from the sunroof of her car. What is your reaction to this comment?

It is outrageous. It goes to show how inconsiderate and insensitive the regime is. They blame the victim instead of taking responsibility for their own security failures. Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was campaigning for the election. Our party has grassroots support--and in a campaign, you reach out to the people on the ground; speak to them, hear their views, explain your election mandate and establish a sort of personal rapport. It is offensive to suggest that she was responsible for her assassination whereas it fact the regime failed to protect her, or may one say, connived in her assassination. Government leaders, including Musharraf and his chief ministers have held rallies but had enough security to protect them from assassination. Former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and former interior Minister Aftab Sherpao were both attacked after rallies in similar circumstances. Both had security cordons that protected them. Neither was even mildly injured in the attacks. Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was martyred not because, in defiance of what the regime wanted, she was reaching out to the people. She was martyred because of the failure or complicity of the regime in failing to protect her.

In the same CBS interview Mr Musharraf said he shared a rocky relationship with your wife and accused her of shifting the goal posts. What did she think of him?

Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto rightly thought of Musharraf as untrustworthy and that view of him is shared by millions of Pakistanis and people all over the world. Over the years, the regime offered several "packages" wanting her to stay out of the country and politics, which she refused. When his support base began eroding after Chief Justice [Iftikhar Muhammad] Chaudhry's dismissal, he offered reconciliation to PPP to relieve pressure on him. Then, he went back on his word--he did not provide her security, refused to provide a level playing field for free election, refused to remove ban on third term prime minister (a ban introduced in the law through executive fiat to banish Nawaz Sharif away from politics), imposed emergency and suspended the constitution. Shaheed Mohtarma Bhutto wanted a transition to democracy and she was promised it Musharraf did not want a transition to democracy. He declared virtual Martial Law. It eroded the basis of talks and negotiations.

The regime is wrong in asserting that Mohtarma Bhutto shifted the goal posts. As a matter of fact Musharraf went back on his word. He has been running with the hare and hunting with the hound. And I think Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto's assassination is the ultimate in deception.

Are you confident that the elections of Feb. 18 will be free and fair?

In the current state the elections cannot be free and fair. Indeed international bodies like the International Crisis Group (ICG) have already catalogued how the dice has been loaded against the democratic parties particularly the Pakistan People's Party. Pre-poll rigging began several months ago. Shaheed Mohtarma Bhutto planned to give a consolidated report of complaints of rigging from across the country to the two US Congressmen later on the day she was martyred. The report had just been completed and was to be released to the international community the day after the rally. Our party released this report earlier this month. The report shows how far the Musharraf regime has gone and is planning to go to rig the election. The electoral rolls are flawed. The Election Commission is far from independent. The media and judiciary are not free. The district governments and intelligence agencies are openly engaged in electoral fraud and then there are the plans for Election Day.

For example:

  • Where an opposing candidate is strong in an area, they have planned to create a conflict at the polling station, even killing people if necessary, to stop polls for at least 3-4 hours. The polling stations will be granted extended opening of thirty minutes which will not be made up for the time lost.
  • 90 percent of the equipment that the USA gave the government of Pakistan to fight terrorism is being used to monitor and to keep a check on their political opponents especially the PPP.
  • The regime has asked government sponsored candidates to give names of their security guards and local thugs to enroll into the police for three days on election duty. These also include ex-Army personnel. They will be used to fire at voter's stations and drive voters away so that ballots can be stuffed.
  • Where they collect and secure the ballot box at the end of the polling day, the place will be broken into and ballots will not be stolen but thrown on the floor so they will have solid basis to call for a recount during which process they will add the votes for their candidates.
  • A new wave of arrests of PPP activists have begun. Over 1200 PPP members have been arrested since Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto's martyrdom, some of who include many possible witnesses of the assassination at the site of the PPP rally. Several thousands more have been implicated in false cases with the threat of arrest hanging over their heads.

So unless the international community forcefully engages and makes it clear that there will be price paid for rigged elections, the regime will go ahead with rigging the polls, if indeed they are held on the announced date.

The US had worked behind the scenes to try and cobble a power sharing agreement between Ms Bhutto and Mr Musharraf. In an interview, Pakistan's Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani said Mr Musharraf was open to the idea of joining in a coalition. Would the PPP consider such power-sharing should the need arise?

Musharraf has shown that he does not respect the constitution and considers his own word above that of the law. Coalitions and power sharing are concepts under normal politics and constitutional rule. The PPP is a democratic political party that led the nation in evolving consensus on the 1973 constitution. We have paid a heavy price for our struggle for democracy--the assassinations of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, the imprisonment of thousands of our members and workers over the years, my own imprisonment for eleven long years in two separate spells. We are open to all options to ensure restoration of democracy but we will not become part of any excuse to maintain dictatorship. So much depends on what direction things are taking. We are not looking for crumbs of power from a dictator's table. We will take our rightful share in power under the constitution after a free and fair election.

Is the PPP open to the idea of sharing power with Nawaz Sharif's party under similar circumstances?

The PPP and Mr Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) are signatories to the Charter for Democracy. We have been allies in the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD). We have a common cause in opposing the dictatorship. All questions about sharing power are premature. Decisions in this regard will be taken by the Party's central executive when the time comes. The first question facing all of us is getting free and fair elections and returning Pakistan to the path of democracy. But power cannot be carved up on a dictator's table. For us legitimate power can only accrue from the power of the ballot, not the bullet.

If the PPP comes to power would it seek to impeach Mr Musharraf?

The PPP has just lost its leader. I have just lost my wife. My children have lost their mother. Our party is facing massive repression and threats to our security. Pakistanis are engaged in a struggle for the restoration of democracy. I think these are the realities we face. This question is hypothetical. For now, we are focused on the elections.

Do you believe the Supreme Court judges fired by Mr Musharraf should be reinstated and would your party do this if it wins the Feb. 18 election?

The PPP has been unequivocal in demanding independence of the judiciary. Lawyers belonging to the PPP, most notably Aitzaz Ahsan, were prominent in the struggle for rule of law that followed the ouster of the Chief Justice by Musharraf in March. From the footage of the rallies of that period it is clear that the crowds all waved PPP flags. At that time the issue was simple: To get the Chief Justice restored to his office. Subsequently the regime complicated the matter with the Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) and a lot of legal mumbo jumbo. We will have to find a way around it and our approach will be institutional, not centered on individuals. The PPP manifesto and the Charter of Democracy it signed with the PML (N) clearly state that we will re-establish the judiciary's independence under the constitution and we plan to do just that if we win the election and form the government.

Some critics have voiced concern that leadership of the PPP is being handed down like a "family heirloom." How do you react to this?

Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto let her wishes about the party leadership e known in her will. The will was read out at the meeting of the PPP Central Executive Committee after her assassination. The CEC elected the new leadership in accordance with Mohtarma's will. The decision to elect me and our son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as co-Chairmen of the PPP was made by the party's Central Executive Committee. Even if it was in accordance with the late leader's will, it is wrong to say this is the transfer of a family heirloom or anything like that. The Party leadership felt that in the current chaotic condition in the country and in the Party, I could effectively hold the Party together and lead them into elections. In the sub-continental politics and also in Pakistan the family tree has significance. Take for example Rajiv Gandhi in India or Bandranaikes in Sri Lanka or Hasina Wajid in Bangladesh. In a number of political parties the spouses or children of Party founders have come to play a special role, more so when the Party leaders were assassinated. It was the party's decision, which was fully backed by the rank and file. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Pakistanis (53 %) think that it was the right decision taken by the Party. Pakistan is not the only country where members of a political party see a family as representing their aspirations. In several democratic countries there is a tradition of supporting leaders from within a particular family. Just because the people support one family does not make the choice undemocratic.

The PPP's central executive committee took a unanimous decision to endorse Mohtarma Bhutto's will but appointed Bilawal Bhutto, not myself as the Chairman. I was chosen to run the day to day affairs of the Party. This equation distributes decision making in a collegial framework. The party surely has a right to choose its own leadership. This is not the same as passing down leadership like furniture. The Chair we now occupy is a bloody one. It is not one that everyone wants.

What role do you foresee for Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan in the party? Do you intend to reach out to leaders like Aftab Sherpao who split from the party?

Foreign media speculates more about individuals within our party than our own members do. The PPP is an institution which has several brilliant leaders and talented workers--with some of the most experienced administrators and articulate individuals in the country. Aitzaz Ahsan has worked for the cause of democracy and for the PPP for years. We seek his immediate release from detention so that he can come and play the central role in the party's struggle that he has played in the past. I am personally reaching out to all of party leaders and rank and file, including Aitzaz Ahsan. My goal is to strengthen the Party together and lead the PPP into elections and restoration of democracy. Specific roles of individuals have not yet been discussed. The time to do that will also come.

Does the PPP intend to field Amin Fahim as its prime ministerial candidate?

Mr Fahim is one of the most experienced and respected members of the Party. The issue of the Prime Minister will be decided only after elections in the light of our strength in the Parliament. It is pre-mature to talk of Prime Minister even as elections have not been held and we do not know which Party gets how many parliamentary seats.

You have been a controversial figure in the past. Do you believe you can unite the PPP?

Pakistanis know their history and they know who was made controversial for what reason and by whom. The PPP stands united. I hope to keep things that way. As for the controversy, I have spent eleven years in prison, three years on one occasion and eight and a half years on another, without ever being convicted of any crime.