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Media's Darling - History's Kleptocrat

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Benazir Bhutto

The lovefest-like mayhem calling for Bhutto's deification and martyrdom paint a comfortable picture fit for the storybooks. A Muslim woman breaking through the veil of male chauvinism in a country marred by corrupt dictators and Islamic fundamentalists, bringing the white light of democracy, hope, and freedom with her. A Cinderella on her way to Pakistan to be turned magically into the princess she so deserved to be. It is a story of epic proportions but unfortunately, that is all it is – a story.  It is a shame that history paints a starkly different and more ominous picture of who Bhutto really was. 

History will tell you, Pakistan's darling daughter of democracy accomplished anything but democracy during her control as the twice prime minister. Her first premiership was a hodge-podge of failed politics in which she was unable to pass a single piece of major legislation. Added to her ineptitude were her massive human rights abuses in which Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, extrajudicial killings and torture. The report described disappearances carried out by the secret services, suppression of human rights critics and journalists, as well as the use of torture, including rape, in in police and paramilitary custody. Not surprisingly, twenty months after she took office, Bhutto was dismissed by Pakistan's president on grounds of corruption and misrule.

The Sharif government that succeeded Bhutto was no better, and he too was ousted from the office of prime minister for corruption and misrule. At this point most Pakistanis forgave Bhutto and she was re-elected for the second time as Prime Minister of Pakistan.  However, this time Bhutto came into office a changed person – obsessed with her dismissal in 1990, high-handed to the point of arrogance, and contemptuous of the liberal principles she had placed at the center of her politics in the 1980s, she no longer made the distinction between the Bhuttoes and Pakistan.  As her former press secretary explained, "In her mind, she was Pakistan, so she could do as she pleased." And she did just that.

She maintained an imperial lifestyle in the new prime minister's residence in Islamabad, a $50 million mansion set on 110 acres on an Islamabad hilltop. Within days of moving in, her husband ordered 11.5 acres of protected woodland on an adjoining hilltop to be bulldozed for a polo field, an exercise track, stabling for 40 polo ponies, quarters for grooms and a parking lot for spectators. The $1.3 million project was funded courtesy of funds allocated for parks and other public amenities needed throughout Pakistan. 

The political anarchy of Bhutto pushed Pakistan into an economic hell-hole, while the darling of democracy continued to achieve epic levels of corruption and plundering. Transparency International named Pakistan one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. It was corruption so blatant that the Swiss appointed an investigating magistrate to investigate her bank accounts. The resulting reports amassed enough evidence to indict Bhutto on money-laundering charges tied to contracts with Geneva-based companies. More than $13.7 million dollars stashed by Bhutto and her husband were frozen by Swiss authorities in 1997. Accordingly, the Pakistani government filed criminal charges of its own against Bhutto in an effort to track down the estimated $1.5 billion she and her husband took from the treasury.   

There will always be those that argue that despite her flaws, Bhutto is a historic figure by virtue of her being the first woman to lead Pakistan. While this is an undeniable accomplishment, the measure of her legacy should be based on the benefits she brought if not to the country then at least to the women of Pakistan. Unfortunately she failed both the country and its women. 

As a young girl, I revered Bhutto. As the first female Muslim prime minister in a country ruled largely at the will of men, she represented hope for all Muslim women. But she disappointed us. She failed to crack down on honor killings despite the fact that thousands of women die each year in such a manner. She failed to even acknowledge much less repeal the unfair laws that make it impossible for a Pakistani woman to bring a rapist to justice. She did not alleviate the poverty that engulfs widows and female orphans of our country and nor did she care to inquire about the rampant acid-throwing problem that ruins lives of hundreds of Pakistani women. Instead she cut deals with the Islamic extremists, whose backing she needed, and paved the way for the Taliban rise to tyranny. Bhutto may have been a woman, but she treated the women of Pakistan no differently than the fundamentalists. 

No doubt Bhutto’s death was tragic. But the real tragedy would have been her rise to power a third time.


Azra Zaidi is a lawyer who concentrates on international and human rights law. She was the 2006-2007 Editor-in-Chief of the
Buffalo Human Rights Review. Her law review article "The Grave Threat Posed by the Military Commissions Act" was recently published in the Buffalo Public Interest Law Journal.

Author of this article: Azra Zaidi
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