Wednesday July 06, 2022

Asif Ali Zardari – always persecuted never prosecuted

September 13, 2019

After the assassination of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari found himself at the epicentre of a broken country. He had to console a nation in mourning, suture together a party battered and wounded, resentful and hurt. How do you make up for such a colossal loss? How do you move forward? He found leadership in coming together “Pakistan Khappay” and direction in her vision “Jeay Bhutto”. Pakistan was a hairline away from being declared a failed state with almost daily terrorist attacks. The PPP government of 2008 had a lot to overcome. It was Asif Ali Zardari’s resolve that despite all the political turmoil and natural calamities, despite all the terror threats, he pushed ahead to resurrect the vision of his late wife by ousting the longstanding military dictator Musharraf without bloodshed, impeachment or domestic unrest and re-establishing the foundations of democracy for which she laid down her life.

One of his first acts as the president was wilfully surrendering his presidential powers to Parliament thus restoring its supremacy. Previous dictators had usurped this power to dismiss elected governments through presidential ordinances. By doing so he became the first president in history to voluntarily give up his powers. His was a coalition government of consensus and reconciliation with monumental achievements like creating the first social safety net, The Benazir Income Support Programme, that empowered women in low income households. He promulgated the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan that devolved powers and funds to provinces allowing for more provincial autonomy and equitable distribution of resources. In the backdrop of the World Recession as well as the height of the war on terror, his appointed governor of Punjab was murdered in cold blood; his minister for minorities was assassinated. The threats could not be understated. His government was always treading on eggshells, as no democratic government before it, had ever been able to realise a full term in power.

Despite very serious reservations on the 2013 election, and lack of a level playing field for the Pakistan People’s Party, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari oversaw the transition of power from one democratically elected government to another. This process was intrinsic to the evolution of democracy in Pakistan.

The years leading up to the 2018 elections saw Pakistan slipping back to old ways. This time the face bearer was going to be Imran Khan. He led a campaign based on guile and gumption, election slogans of complete hyperbole and hysterical claims of repatriating 200 billion dollars of looted money stashed abroad by opposition leaders. This was well orchestrated chaos, politics not of policy but of person. Spewing hatred in public gatherings for the leaders of the last 10 years, bifurcation of the youth and fanning the flames of religious bigotry. The campaign slogans read that all aliments of Pakistan were due to their “corruption”. He spoke openly of his fanboy vision of a glorified Pakistan era under the military rule in the 60s and early 2000. The biggest irony is Pakistan has never had an uninterrupted period where democracy was allowed to flourish. What he was actually doing was creating a hatred for civilian rule. He was known for his lack of attendance in Parliament, deeming it as a wasteful exercise. Cursing even the very existence of the Prime Minister House like it was a personal property of Zardari or Sharif. This leaflet of propaganda was well backed, funded and sold to the masses. A direct repercussion of this were the corruption allegations brought against Asif Ali Zardari.

In the weeks before the 2018 general elections, a hysterical frenzy broke out on all media channels of corruption allegations against Asif Ali Zardari. The timing of it mirroring the likes of the Hilary Clinton email fiasco. On June 7, 2018, an FIR was registered by the Federal Investigation Agency questioning some private intra-banking transactions. The investigating FIA officer happened to be Najaf Mirza who facilitated Asif Ali Zardari’s torture during his previous incarceration and had an active pending FIR investigation on him. It became obvious very early on that this matter was more personal and against the person. In the following weeks, the matters brought against Asif Ali Zardari were suddenly elevated from the banking courts in Karachi, to the highest court of law – the Supreme Court in Islamabad due to “slackness in the progress of pending enquiries” on fake bank accounts. This was an unprecedented legal move where a pending enquiry on private intra-banking transactions was considered slack. The Supreme Court had overstretched its insight deeming it as a matter of fundamental rights thus exercising its suo motu powers under Article 184(3) of the Constitution.

It is unfathomable to understand how slackness was a legal reason when the judicial and wrongful murder of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1979) and the case of the assassination of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto (2007) are still pending in our honourable courts for decades. I understand there may be benefits of judicial activism in cases of swift justice but for the first time we see our courts entering into a phase of judicial expediency with selected justice. On July 9th 2018, ten days after the suo motu notice, the Supreme Court ordered for both President Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur to be placed on the Exit Control List. This would be the start of curbing his human rights. Despite this, he was elected from his constituency on July 26, 2018 regardless of these blatant attempts to tarnish his campaign. Even the notion of him returning to Islamabad was bound to ruffle feathers. Election day was a complete debacle and deserves an entire chapter on the vast contraventions of the Election Act. Our Rangers went from securing polling booths to counting votes, in the absence of polling agents. They wanted my father out of the political scene but here he was elected by the people right back in the heart of the capital as an elected member of the National Assembly to defend what he had so carefully put together - the institution of democracy and supremacy of Parliament.

The morning the House gathered for the prime ministerial vote - arrest warrants were issued for Asif Ali Zardari. Instead of attending Parliament to vote, he was rushed to court for bail proceedings. Simultaneously, our prime minister began his maiden speech where he hurled direct threats, vowing to persecute and imprison his incumbents of the last 10 years. This would be exactly the course of events that followed. In the following months, several PTI top ranking ministers met privately with the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, where the government endorsed his call for collecting donations to build a dam. The same Chief Justice ordered to form a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) with extra constitutional powers including members of the secret service (ISI) with the purpose to investigate the intra-banking transactions case alleging involvement of Asif Ali Zardari. Clearly this was not a matter of funding terrorism nor a matter of national security. It was just a gimmick of national propaganda and well orchestrated chaos.

The people of Pakistan would soon realise how the PTI government was never prepared for the job. It was a government with a vision completely misconstrued. They had set the nation on a course to nowhere. A government of oxymorons, clearly confused and absolutely useless. However, what they have mastered is a fascist form of government of slander and accusations against the opposition to divert attention from the relevant, curbing liberties and rights of the press and the people. During the JIT investigations, the PTI minister of information would repeatedly pre-empt legal developments on national television. There was no subtleness in their collusion. They wanted to undo what Asif Ali Zardari had done in his tenure, and destabilise the majority PPP government in Sindh. Therefore, they started openly denouncing the 18th Constitutional Amendment, questioning why funds had to be given to the provinces. This debate took place in tandem with carefully orchestrated corruption allegations against Sindh cabinet members. The speaker of the Sindh Assembly was suddenly arrested, without any probe or investigation, on frivolous charges of “assets beyond means”, and he still remains in custody.

On Dec 27th 2018, PTI leaders addressed a press conference announcing their intent to form their own government in Sindh. Hours later, a whole host of elected representatives from the PPP government in Sindh were placed on the Exit Control List including the Chairman of the party, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. There was not an iota of legal ground or justification – this was nothing short of dictatorship and the enforcement of a one party rule with all other leaders of opposition behind bars.

On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court decided to move the findings of the JIT reports to the National Accountability Bureau in Rawalpindi and ordered them to take over the investigation. Not only was this absolutely unjustified, given that it was a jurisdictional leap across provinces but that NAB itself is a highly controversial entity. NAB is an investigative body set up by the military dictator Musharraf (who himself is an absconder and wanted man with swiss bank accounts, international properties but not a single investigation) wildly used as a tool to pressurise and coerce politicians and undermine and dismiss elected governments.

They boast unbridled power with unaccounted deaths in their custody but have never been held answerable or accountable. The achievements of NAB is a tale of absolute shambles where instead of recovering money their misadventures have cost Pakistan’s exchequer billions. The public accounts committee and parliamentary procedures are undermined and bypassed with the existence of this extra constitutional body. In a completely unrelated series of events NAB have just inaugurated an art gallery in Quetta. The threshold today is, if you are with PTI you are given a clean chit by NAB and if you are on the other side of the aisle, you get persecuted.

Up until June 2019, Asif Ali Zardari was present and complicit for all JIT and NAB summons. In an outrageous power trip, he was arrested and sent to detention in a NAB cell on June 10th 2019. A medical examination arranged by NAB authorities at the Rawalpindi Institute of Cardiology on the 13th of June discovered a depleted state of his health. After all he suffers from ailments brought on from his first 11 years of unjust incarceration and physical torture. The report conducted by Professor Maj Gen Azhar Mahmood Kayani revealed three coronary arteries are severely blocked. His blood sugar levels had been uncontrollable exasperating his daily condition. Despite all of this, the courts went ahead and sent him to Adiala Jail on judicial remand on August 16, 2019, where he still remains. He is being kept in a fenced off Class B 12x12 prison cell in complete isolation. The courts are even scrambling over a decision as to whether he should be allowed an air condition in his cell. Both his family and lawyers are denied access in complete violation of his human rights. Apart from being the former President of Pakistan, and a law abiding citizen, his pre-trial treatment is not only unwarranted but also criminally negligent with an intent to harm.

On August 29th media broke the news of his midnight shift from jail to a cardiac hospital. The next morning, my sister Aseefa rushed to the hospital to see him. She barely caught a glimpse of our ailing father when she was denied access and manhandled by police at the hospital gates despite brandishing her court orders in hand. The hospital doors were locked and barricaded – even patients were not permitted entry or exit. I must reiterate at this point, that this is a former president, not a terrorist or enemy state pilot and up till now no charges have been formally brought against him; the references are still pending investigation and the trial has yet to even begin. He was brisked back to Adiala Jail the very same day without even completing the required check-ups or obtaining a discharge form. No record of this visit has been shared with us or his lawyers till date. This was not the first time a court order was so unabashedly dismissed. We also had permission for Eid visitation but were denied the most basic of prison rights. I narrate these events to highlight the absurdity of what is taking place in Pakistan. PTI’s interior minister who served the same post under Musharraf is not only personally nominated accused in my mother’s assassination but has now been tasked to personally oversee the treatment being handed down to Asif Ali Zardari. Make no mistake about it, it is very clear that this fascist regime is after his life.

President Asif Ali Zardari never once objected to being investigated. As a matter of fact, he has been the single most scrutinised, investigated, persecuted, but never once convicted person in the history of Pakistan. Not a single conviction to date, despite spending 11 years in prison on falsified charges, he is now again sent to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi – the city where my mother was assassinated in 2007. My grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s crime was saying, “all power to the people” and he was sent to the gallows on trumped-up charges.

My mother, Benazir Bhutto returned from exile to fulfil the dream of restoring democracy in Pakistan but she was assassinated for saying, “Democracy is the best Revenge”. My father, Asif Ali Zardari, resonated the slogan, “Jeay Bhutto”. His crime is that he managed to succeed in realising their vision of democracy in Pakistan. Now the intention is to break him, mentally, physically as he defies the new orders of power. Time will decide how he goes down but that time is not now.