Pakistan's Ex-Leader, Husband Found Guilty

By Kamran Khan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 16, 1999

KARACHI, Pakistan, April 15 -- Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband were found guilty today of receiving kickbacks from a Swiss company and were sentenced to five years in prison.

Bhutto, who has twice served as Pakistan's leader and both times been dismissed over allegations of corruption, was convicted in absentia. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has been in jail since Bhutto's second ouster in November 1996.

In addition to sentencing the couple to prison terms, the Rawalpindi branch of the Lahore High Court fined them $8.6 million and barred them from holding public office.

The verdict was announced at the end of an 18-month trial on charges that Bhutto and her husband received kickbacks from SGS, a Geneva-based organization that had been awarded a contract to inspect all shipments to Pakistan to prevent tax evasion by shippers. Several other cases of corruption against Bhutto and her husband are pending before Pakistani courts.

Today's verdict is the latest twist in the long-running political and legal battle between Bhutto and Pakistan's current leader, Nawaz Sharif. Like Bhutto, Sharif is a two-time prime minister, and he too was dismissed over allegations of corruption in 1993. Sharif has accused Bhutto and her husband of stealing as much as $100 million during her terms as prime minister and Zardari's career as a Pakistani senator. The couple repeatedly have denied all the allegations.

Bhutto said today in London that she would appeal the verdict and planned to return to Pakistan soon -- perhaps as early as next week -- to pursue her case. "What [the judge] has done against me is a crime," she said in an interview with the BBC.

Bhutto, 47, became the first female head of government in an Islamic country when she and her Pakistan People's Party swept to power in elections in 1988. The daughter of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and a champion of democracy during nearly a decade of military rule that followed her father's overthrow and execution, she enjoyed enormous popularity but was dismissed in 1990 on charges of corruption and mismanagement. Elections in 1993 returned her to power, but she was dismissed again on almost identical charges in 1996.

Last August, she and her husband were indicted in Switzerland after an investigating magistrate found evidence that the Bhutto family was the beneficiary of offshore accounts in which illegal kickbacks were parked. Swiss authorities had frozen 19 secret accounts that belonged to the Bhutto family in 1997 on suspicion that they were used for money laundering.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company