Tale of Two Anti-Bhutto Press Conferences in London
by Wajid Shamsul Hasan
WASHINGTON DC, Aug 26, 2004 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com
LONDON, August 26: Asif Ali Zardari is once again in the news. To have him reported widely in the British media Pakistan High Commission played host to a lavish drinks-cum-lunch-cum-press conference addressed by the British solicitor of the Government of Pakistan at one of London’s prestigious five-star hotels within the vicinity of the mission at Lowndes Square.
How much in British pound-sterling the sumptuous affair cost the High Commission, National Accountability Bureau and much exploited tax payers of Pakistan would surely, sooner than later, come out of the official closets.
This is besides the fact that a policy of apartheid was shown to Pakistani journalists. A separate press conference at the High Commission Building was arranged the same afternoon where high tea was served. Perhaps a press conference attended by English and Pakistani journalists together could have put the spanner in the NAB scheme of things to malign Benazir Bhutto.
As reported by the Pakistani media Solicitor Alan Perry had difficult time in explaining to those inquisitive journalists who were interested in facts rather than fiction. They wanted an answer from him if he had any document in his possession for the purpose of presentation as proof before them incriminating Benazir Bhutto in the purchase or beneficial ownership of the Rockwood House in Surrey.
Obviously substantive answer to this question by the Government of Pakistan hired solicitor held the key to NAB’s campaign of maligning Benazir Bhutto especially in the light of the fact that some of the journalists present on the occasion had inconvertible proof from the land registry office that both Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari were not mentioned in the records as owners of the Rockwood House.
This contentious issue converted a field day for the NAB and its legal advisors into a sort of embarrassment with egg on their face. And ever since then, GoP’s solicitor has been doing his best to clarify his position, his role in the whole affair and has been issuing explanations one after the other. In his latest clarification, Mr Alan Perry has claimed that he did not say as much that has been attributed to him by the “Nation” (London) of August 25, 2004.
In the clarification issued by the Information Division, Pakistan High Commission in London, Government of Pakistan’s solicitor has stated that he wished to “point out that a press report of my words, in the “Nation” today, 25 August, is once again inaccurate. It is not correct to report me as saying to the journalist who called me yesterday by telephone that “there is a possibility of Mrs Bhutto and Mr Asif Zardari appearing in the documents available to the Government of Pakistan in support of the case. Immediately after that call I made a careful note of what I had actually said during it.
The relevant part of my note reads: “I said that there are lot of other documents in the case and of course their names (the names of Mrs Bhutto and Mr Zardari) did appear in other documents. Of course I stand by that”.
While the “Nation” acting in the best of professional ethics, has given Solicitor Alan Perry an opportunity to put his point of view before its readers. However, Solicitor Perry has so far not produced-either in his press conference or otherwise-such vital documents that he claimed referred to Ms Benazir Bhutto and her husband Mr Asif Zardari as the owners of the Rockwood House. At no stage he has substantiated that the two were the rightful owners of the Rockwood House.
In order to cover his failure to produce any evidence that could make his accusations authentic against Zardari and Bhutto, Alan Perry has been so far talking in the air of “other documents” (in possession of GoP according to
him) mentioning the names of Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari. Sitting in London leveling such serious charges, he could not even produce Land Registry documents that are easily available – if they had Bhutto and Zardari – as owners of the Rockwood House.
On the other hand, some Pakistani journalists who have been keeping track of Rockwood controversy since its inception claim that they have Land Registry documents that do not show Asif or Bhutto as owners. To make the matter further clear, Solicitor Perry did accept in the afternoon press conference with Pakistani journalists that the Land Registry did not mention Asif or Bhutto as the owner.
By and large it is perceived that since no copies of documents that allegedly mentioned Bhutto and Zardari as owners of the Rockwood House were provided to the media, there is no other option but to dismiss NAB version as nothing but hot air. It is also felt that only production of authentic land registry in the name of Bhutto and Zardari could give validity to NAB’s claim in the case. Merely mentioning that Islamabad has “other documents” to prove its case can be dismissed as mala fide intentions on its parts.
They say the taste of pudding is in eating it. Not many stories that emanate from the High Commission – howsoever worthy of reporting – are conspicuous by their absence in London’s leading newspapers. But this one did for obvious reasons. Some one at the mission knows what makes the mare run – wherever. In the first place they were looked after well. Secondly and most importantly from the journalistic point of view, they were promised a banner against Pakistan’s only leader of international standing Benazir Bhutto.
That is the reason in reporting a press conference addressed by the Government of Pakistan hired solicitor to contest Zardari’s legal objection to the sale of the Rockwood House on the ground that Islamabad claims it belongs to him, both the leading English newspapers preferred to use Bhutto’ s name in their headlines rather than Zardari’s. (Independent headlined its
story: “Pakistan’s pursuit of Bhuttos” while Guardian said: “Bhutto’s husband now admits owning £4m estate”– August 21).
With reference to these two headlines, the view of Senator Farhatullah Babar (Press Spokesman to Ms Bhutto) has lot of weight. According to him, Bhutto has never claimed the Rockwood House nor there is any document which shows that it belongs to her. He rightly believes that “exploiting her name to attract readers” is unworthy of the leading English newspapers. “But perhaps writing “Pursuit of Zardari” would simply not have made news. ”
Senator Babar has further set the record straight. “Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is married to Mr. Asif Ali Zardari although she kept her maiden name. The Surrey story stems from Mr. Zardari’s objection to the sale of Surrey on the grounds that Islamabad claims it belongs to him. Ms. Bhutto has not claimed the Surrey House.. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is a person of independent means. She has both properties and bank accounts. In fact, she has had properties and bank accounts from the time she was a young child. She was one of the people who paid tax in Pakistan when there were only 10,000 taxpayers in the country even though she was a minor. None of Ms. Bhutto’s properties contrary to what your article wrongly claims are linked to disputed accounts even though eight years passed since the regime made her the target for its investigations.”
Senator Babar hits the nail right on the head in stating: “When Mrs Cherie Blair came under public scrutiny for her purchase of two flats, the press did not link Prime Minister Blair to those purchases. Mr. and Mrs Blair are two separate legal entities. It is wrong that double standards are applied in the case of Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto simply because Ms. Bhutto is an internationally recognized figure. The damage to her reputation and stress from such distorted reporting is incalculable.”
Senator Babar also points the factual inaccuracy in the “Independent” story. Referring to her age he has corrected that “Ms. Bhutto is 51, not 58. I mention this as an illustration of a lack of research that could easily have clarified matters and made your article more accurate.”
One shares the view held by Babar that Bhutto remains Pakistan’s most popular leader and therefore a political victim of successive anti-democratic regimes since 1996. Bhutto would be more than happy to return to Pakistan were General Musharraf to restore the Judges of the Supreme Court he sacked to pressurize the Judiciary into total subservience with his iron fist.
“Perhaps the “Independent” could ask him to do that and then see where his threats of arresting Ms. Bhutto lead.” Besides that, Babar has referred to her stand that she never visited the Rockwood House in Surrey, nor purchased it or was concerned with what happens to it.
As I sat down to write this piece I came across a wire story released by government-run APP (Associated Press of Pakistan). It quoted from a recent TV interview of the outgoing Prime Minister Choudhry Shujaat Hussain. The former Prime Minister still in office at the time of the interview came out openly that the drug smuggling case against Asif Ali Zardari was fabricated. “I still stand by my statement that the drug smuggling case filed against him in the Anarkali Police Station was fake”.
A little but relevant digression here since it relates to the sordid manner the then government of Pakistan had left no stone unturned to punish Bhutto and Zardari starting from November 5, 1996 following the illegal overthrow of the PPP government. The NAB under Senator Saifur Rahman went mad in maligning Bhutto to destroy her politically so that she could no more be a threat to the conspirators against democracy. In the process to hurt Bhutto the rulers singled out Asif Zardari to blackmail her into quitting politics.
Millions from the exchequer were spent to concoct and fabricate cases against them. A multi-million international fishing operation was also launched to find out their so-called hidden wealth allegedly and secretly littered in foreign banks.
While the NAB officials were having whale of a time at the government expense visiting foreign capitals, spending money on detectives and whosoever could provide them a lead, it soon dawned upon them that their machinations to prove alleged corruption by Bhutto and Zardari failed to bear the desired fruits. More money was spent and world’s most expensive legal brains who could manipulate any situation or law in their client’s favor were hired to get foreign government’s involved in their fishing operations.
Though there is much to write how the foreign governments were abused by Islamabad against Bhutto and Zardari, I would confine here to mention about UK and how Islamabad took the Home Office for a ride. When the then Home Secretary refused to help Islamabad in its fishing operation to prove Zardari’s allegedly corruption, it seemed to be a dead end.
However, at a very high price some British legal experts showed the way to NAB. Islamabad was advised by them that if it could come up with a drug case against Zardari and accuse him of raising assets through monies acquired through drug smuggling, then the British Government under UN’s International Agreement to fight Criminals could be compelled to help Islamabad.
Pronto NAB registered a case involving Asif Zardari in drug smuggling and then the Attorney General of Pakistan was made to write to the British government to help Islamabad fish for Zardari’s alleged hidden assets.
This brings me to former Prime Minister and the head of the Quaid-i-Azam Muslim League Choudhry Shujaat Hussain’s recent conclusive statement that the drug case against Zardari was fake. As the then Interior Minister and Minister in-charge of Anti-Narcotic Force, he was approached by NAB chief Saifur Rahman to involve Asif Zardari in a drug case.
Following the dismissal of Nawaz government, Choudhry Sahib was honest enough to put the record straight. He disclosed in an interview to Friday Times of Lahore that Senator Saifur Rahman had tried to pressurize him and the Director General of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), Major General Mushtaq Hussein, to register a drug case against Asif Zardari. On General Mushtaq’s refusal he was removed from ANF.
Present government’s pursuit of one-sided accountability is continuation of Saifur Rahman’s policy of vendetta to create horrendous vindictive conditions to force Bhutto out politics. In the process judges have been rewarded handsomely for doling out sentences that pleased the regime. They have been given out extraordinary pecuniary advantages as an indirect form of bribery. In some cases huge amounts were paid as “back wages for retrospective promotion after retirement” and given cash cumulatively and immediately leading to a cash bonanza for a judge.
The judges, therefore, have been the direct beneficiaries and they have financial interests in ensuring that the regime views them generously so that they can also benefit from “retrospective promotions”. Besides that bribes were given to the special accountability judges dressed up as “special pay packages” more lucrative than members of the higher judiciary.
The categorical statement by the former Prime Minister Choudhry Shujaat Hussain who is still a kingpin in Musharraf’s power hierarchy that the drug case against Zardari was fake knocks off the bottom of other cases as well against him and Bhutto. Zardari’s continued incarceration is the most blatant violation of the judicial structure, norms and spirit of natural justice. There is not a single equivalent case of a person having suffered a life sentence without being convicted.
It is mandatory in Pakistani law for the release of a person after two years if his case remains undecided. This benefit is being denied to him. Law also provides for the release of a person on medical grounds facing serious health problems. Asif has been made an exception to the rule. He has already completed his sentences even before he could be proven guilty. It is time for international jurists community to take note of the blatant violation of human rights by Musharraf regime and demand of him to release Asif Zardari forthwith.