Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Death Threats And Court Challenges: Pakistan Awaits The Return Of Benazir Bhutto

[UPDATED in comments]

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto plans to return to Pakistan tomorrow, amid a multitude of uncertainties and the threat of suicide bombing.

Legal uncertainties abound; the Supreme Court has resumed hearings into the legality of President General Pervez Musharraf's October 6 "re-election".

The Court has also pledged to review the "reconciliation ordinance" which grants unconditional amnesty to (some) former politicians who were run out of office (and out of Pakistan) amid charges of corruption in 1999 when Musharraf -- Chief of Army Staff -- took presidential power in a bloodless coup.

The "reconciliation" agreement -- long negotiated and hurriedly passed just before the presidential "re-election" -- permits the return of Benazir Bhutto and "paves the way" for her to become Prime Minister in a pro-American alliance with Musharraf, who has pledged to resign his commission in November, if his "re-election" is ratified. Otherwise he will definitely remain in command of the army, and probably declare martial law, if recent whisperings are any guide.

The reconciliation does not apply to another ousted politician, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is not interested in any pro-American alliances, and who was promptly arrested and deported when he tried to return to Pakistan in September. But the Supreme Court has also agreed to hear a petition from his supporters arguing that he should also be allowed to return.

The impending return of Benazir Bhutto but not Nawaz Sharif -- not only to Pakistan but presumably to a very high position in national politics -- is said to have been quietly brokered by the Americans, trying to forge an alliance that will work for the "War on Terror" and against both Islamic extremism and popular democratic ideas.

Therefore, it's being heralded in some quarters as a great step forward for democracy:
"My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy," Bhutto said at a news conference in Dubai, where she has spent much of her exile.
but as Carlotta Gall reported for the New York Times, not everyone is buying it:
The amnesty on corruption charges has caused a storm of criticism in Pakistan, not only from political opponents of Ms. Bhutto. Objections have also come from many ordinary people who are desperate for their leaders to be held accountable before the law.
Griff Witte of the Washington Post has an even more incisive assessment:
But Bhutto's democratic credentials are being questioned by many in Pakistan, who accuse her of undercutting a once burgeoning anti-Musharraf movement by negotiating a deal with the general. Under its terms, Bhutto will not have to face corruption charges that she alleges are politically motivated. In turn, she kept her supporters in the assemblies when Musharraf earlier this month won a new, five-year term. Other opposition groups resigned in protest, decrying the election as a farce.
Similarly, the President General's promise to "doff the uniform" is being portrayed as a great step forward for civilian government, even though everybody will recognize the same man, even in a business suit. And of course Musharraf has been maneuvering his friends and allies into key spots in the Army, in preparation for his resignation.

In the last few days. Musharraf and other highly placed government officials have been asking Benazir Bhutto to delay her return until the Supreme Court has ruled on the "reconciliation ordinance", but she is determined to stick to her original plan.

Her imminent return has attracted threats of suicide bombing from Beitullah Massoud, a Taliban leader from Waziristan, according to Griff Witte in the Washington Post, and the government has promised her the highest level of security.

Meanwhile there's a lot going on in the Supreme Court, which may not reach any decisions at all for several weeks!


I've written about some of these issues in much greater depth lately; for more background please see last Wednesday's post, "Airstrikes Hit Civilians In Pakistan: Hundreds Dead In Latest Round Of Terror War By Proxy".