Bhutto Appeal Begins in Pakistan
The Pakistan Supreme Court Monday started hearing former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's potentially explosive appeal against her 1999 corruption conviction, court officials said.
The seven-member bench will hear five different petitions from Bhutto, who has lived in self-imposed exile since shortly before her conviction, and her jailed husband Asif Ali Zardari.
Bhutto and Zardari have, among other cases, challenged their high court conviction for corruption involving multi-million-dollar contracts awarded to a Swiss company during her last term in office.
They were both given five-year prison sentences, fined a total of 8.6 million dollars and disqualified from parliament for seven years.
While Zardari, a former senator, is still in prison with failing health, Bhutto has divided her time in exile between London and Dubai and remains at the helm of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
The appeal could have incendiary consequences for Pakistani politics.
Success would pave the way for Bhutto to end her exile and lead the democracy movement against the military government of General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup in October 1999.
The two-time prime minister has said her suitcase is packed to return to Pakistan, although she has not set a date.
Lawyers representing Bhutto applied to admit as fresh evidence telephone tapes suggesting her conviction was politically motivated.
The alleged conversations between the high court judge who convicted her and senior associates of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in government at the time, were published recently in Britain's Sunday Times.
The judge and the political figures, including Sharif's law minister, have denied any such conversations took place.
Senior lawyer Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, representing Zardari, said the tapes deserved "consideration" as they struck at the heart of the judiciary's "credibility."
"I am not talking about any person (specific judge). I am talking about the institution," he said.
Before adjourning the packed hearing, the bench led by Justice Muhammad Bashir Jahangiri said it would seek the state's position on the tapes before deciding whether they could become evidence.
The applicants' lawyers also asked the supreme court to hear several key witnesses who were not allowed to give evidence during the trial, as well as the opinions of foreign legal experts who have criticized the conviction.
In a recent email interview with AFP, Bhutto said she was committed to return to Pakistan as soon as a strong movement for the restoration of democracy was organized.
She said her PPP supporters had asked her to return to take advantage of the political void created by the government's exile of Sharif to Saudi Arabia in December.
"Given the challenges Pakistan faces, it's important for me to build a post-Cold War identity for Pakistan. It's a world of markets and the era of missiles has faded into the past," she said.
Hinting at stepped up efforts at detente with nuclear rival India, Bhutto put "regional peace and stability" at the top of her agenda if she becomes prime minister for the third time.
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)