Chronicle of a death foretold

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The Independent Online

From the moment Benazir Bhutto swept into the President's Room of the RAF club in London for a "farewell" dinner just days before her return to Pakistan, it was clear to see why Western governments were eating out of her hand.

The Oxford-educated former prime minister was confident, straight-shooting, humorous and articulate about her hopes for a secular and democratic Pakistan. She cut an optimistic figure for the scion of a doomed dynasty her father was hanged by a military dictator and both her brothers died in suspicious circumstances.

Ms Bhutto talked about wanting to lead the "moderate middle" against extremism after free and fair elections and seemed set for a third term as head of government under President Pervez Musharraf with the blessing of the UK and US governments.

The first female prime minister in the Muslim world when she was elected in 1988 at the age of 35, she was deposed in 1990, re-elected in 1993, and ousted again in 1996 amid charges of corruption and incompetence. Those controversies, however, did little to cool the admiration of her Western supporters.

In London, in conversations with her largely male audience with military connections who became increasingly rowdy over the claret, she dealt directly with questions about the corruption allegations that had dogged her two previous administrations, and was eloquent about the role of women in Islamic society. Some people wanted to know what she would do differently this time, after her second term ended in ignominy and exile, others asked her about the wisdom of negotiating with President Pervez Musharraf, who had still not committed to shedding his military uniform at that time.

When I inquired whether she would write an article for The Independent, she was gracious. "Give my regards to your editor," she said.

Dressed in an elegant emerald shalwar kameez and with a white headscarf slipping from her hair, she stood up after the salmon roulade and chicken supreme to lay down her vision of the future. "I believe that we are at this time at a critical fork between democracy and dictatorship, and between moderation and extremism," she said, saying that the stakes could not be higher for her nuclear-armed country and for the world.

"I know that there is a school of thought which claims that extremism can better be confronted by a military-backed regime," she went on. "As such, some see a controlled dictatorship as a stable and reliable ally, rather than a truly elected government that has the support of the people.

"It will not surprise you to know that I disagree with this view quite vigorously. I think Continued from page 3

it is a strategic miscalculation that can have a dysfunctional impact in the battle against violent fanaticism, bigotry and hate which today pose the most serious threat to Pakistan's internal security."

Those words now look like the chronicle of a death foretold. That October evening, the talk was of her possible arrest when she flew back to Karachi, not of assassination, although the first assassination attempt was staged on the very day of her return.

Her close friend from Oxford days, Victoria Schofield, who was to join her on the flight to Karachi, said Ms Bhutto kept two BlackBerries in case one was confiscated by police after her arrival. Ms Schofield was with Ms Bhutto on the bus targeted by suicide bombers on 18 October, leaving 139 dead.

Ms Bhutto decided to return to Karachi because she said she wanted to rekindle the democratic dream of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who is buried in the city. Her democratically elected father, prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had given his life trying to defend Jinnah's vision against extremism, she added.

Ms Bhutto, 54, who was jailed for five years following her father's arrest for murder, reluctantly entered politics after her father was hanged by the military in 1979. The Bhutto family hailed from the wealthy landowning elite in southern Sindh province, which remained the bedrock of her political support.

But her two stints as prime minister, from 1988-1990 and from 1993-1996, ended with corruption charges being laid against herself and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who was jailed for two years on charges of forcing a Pakistani businessman to hand over money. Ms Bhutto says the charges were never proved. Under the deal she struck with President Musharraf on her return, outstanding corruption charges against her were amnestied.

Ms Schofield, who gave the vote of thanks at the farewell dinner, spoke of her friend's bravery in deciding to return home after eight years of exile to Pakistan, where her politically active brother Mir Murtaza was shot in 1996. Her brother Shahnawaz also died in mysterious circumstances in France in 1985.

"I pray for the best while I prepare for the worst. In any case, I am going back home. I am going back home to fight for the restoration of Pakistan's place in the community of democratic nations. I do not fear the extremists, for I have put my fate in the hands of my people, and my faith in God."

And with those fateful words, she was gone.

Countdown to assassination

* 1988-90 Benazir Bhutto becomes the first female prime minister of a Muslim country after leading her Pakistan People's Party, founded by her father, to poll victory. Her first term ends with her dismissal by the president and corruption charges being laid.

* 1993-96 Bhutto's second term ends with her being sacked for corruption and nepotism. Her husband, Asif Zardari, had been investments minister and became known as "Mr Ten Percent". She leaves the country and is found guilty of corruption while abroad. The charge is later quashed.

* 1998 Swiss charges of money-laundering are brought against Zardari.

* 1999 Bhutto and Zardari are sentenced to five years in jail and fined 4.3m on charges of taking kickbacks from a Swiss company. A higher court later overturns the conviction.

* 9 March 2007 President Pervez Musharraf suspends Chief Justice Iftakar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggering a wave of anger across the country and protests by Bhutto's PPP which joins up with the party of Nawaz Sharif.

* 10 July Musharraf's troops storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad to crush a Taliban-style movement. At least 105 people are killed. Attacks and suicide bombings follow.

* 20 July Supreme Court reinstates Chaudhry, dealing a blow to Musharraf's authority.

* 27 July Musharraf meets Bhutto in Abu Dhabi as negotiations, encouraged by the UK and US, begin on how to move the country towards a civilian-led democracy.

* 10 September Nawaz Sharif arrested at Islamabad on his arrival from exile. He is deported to Saudi Arabia.

* 2 October Musharraf's government announces an amnesty for outstanding corruption charges against Bhutto, clearing the way for her return.

* 6 October Musharraf wins a new presidential term in a vote by legislators. Supreme Court holds off confirming legality.

* 18 October Suicide bomber tries to assassinate Bhutto in Karachi on her return from Dubai. At least 134 are killed.

* 3 November Musharraf imposes emergency rule.

* 11 November election set for 8 January.

* 13 November Bhutto under house arrest, to stop a march against emergency rule.

* 22 November Commonwealth suspends Pakistan.

* 28 November Musharraf hands over command of army.

* 29 November Musharraf is sworn in as civilian leader.

* 30 November Bhutto publishes manifesto for election, keeping open the option of boycotting it.

* 9 December Sharif says he will take part in election.

n15 December Musharraf lifts state of emergency.

* 27 December Bhutto killed.