Bhuttos found guilty of corruption

Region in turmoil: Ex-prime minister given five-year sentence in her absence as Pakistan continues arms race with India
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The Independent Online
HOURS AFTER Pakistan test-fired a medium-range missile, a court declared the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and her husband guilty of corruption and sentenced them to five years in jail.

The Lahore High Court also barred them from holding any public office during this period and ordered them to pay a fine of $8.6m (pounds 5.3m).

"Shaheen has hit Bhutto," said one of thje former premier's supporters at the Islamabad headquarters of her Pakistan People's Party, referring to the Shaheen missile Pakistan tested yesterday from a mobile launching pad at the Ormara naval base on the Arabian Sea coast. It was the second missile Pakistan has fired during the last two days, in response to a similar test by India at the weekend. On Wednesday Pakistan tested Ghauri- II, an improved version of a missile it tested last year.

Bhutto supporters say the government chose the occasion on purpose. "Since people are occupied with these tit-for-tat missile tests by India and Pakistan, they will be slow to respond to the court's verdict and that's what the government wanted," said a supporter from Ms Bhutto's home province of Sindh. Ms Bhutto was not in Pakistan to hear her sentence. Speaking from London, she said she was a victim of a political witch-hunt. In a message to her supporters from Britain, she vowed to challenge the verdict in Pakistan's Supreme Court and hoped to prove she was innocent.

Pakistan's accountability bureau, headed by Saifur Rehman, who framed the charges against her, accused Ms Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari, of "stealing $100m from public funds during her two terms as prime minister", a charge Ms Bhutto denies. Mr Rehman said the Bhuttos had destroyed proof of their involvement in corrupt practices. "We sent our investigators to the United States, Britain and Switzerland to collect evidence. They worked relentlessly and collected enough evidence to convict them," said Mr Rehman.

Ms Bhutto said Mr Rehman's investigators simply forged the documents to implicate her. She had earlier requested the court not to accept these documents.

Mr Rehman said: "We accepted the challenge and on our request a judicial team visited Switzerland and verified the documents as genuine. It was this judicial probe that convinced the court."

Justice Abdul Qayyum of the Lahore High Court said Ms Bhutto and her husband had been found guilty of corruption and had abused public office while in power.

The verdict automatically removed Ms Bhutto and her husband from parliament. She is a member of the lower house of parliament while Mr Zardari is a member of the upper house, known as the Senate.

He is allowed to attend the Senate proceedings although he has been in prison since Ms Bhutto was ousted as prime minister on 5 November1996.

General elections, held three months later, brought Nawaz Sharif to power. He pledged to "purge the nation of all corrupt politicians". He set up the accountability bureau under Mr Rehman and gave him the task to expose corrupt politicians, officials and industrialists.

But the accountability process has been seen as partisan and is accused of taking no action against government supporters.

"This is not true. We have taken action against those in the ruling party as well. Bhutto's is a high-profile case. It gets all the publicity while our other activities go unreported," said Mr Rehman.

Ms Bhutto disagreed. In a message from London to her party headquarters in Islamabad she said: "The sole purpose of the accountability process is to discredit me and my family."

She added: "Dealing with these allegations has traumatised me. It has been painful beyond belief."

The former prime minister said the government was doing its best to vilify her but "I am happy to say that the people of Pakistan have rejected these allegations".

Ms Bhutto said she had had no hope of proving her innocence "before a judge [Qayyum] whose father hanged my father and who is a close family associate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif".