BENAZIR BHUTTO, the former prime minister of Pakistan, is clearly unsure about the leopards. The skin of one animal lies on her black- tiled floor. The other, stuffed and snarling, rears up next to it in alarming fashion.
Perhaps she thinks they look too aggressive. She loves the rest of the decor in her home in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad (she has several other homes in Pakistan and abroad). That includes the heavy glass table with curved legs, the white and gold-painted chairs, the mirror shaped like the sun and the stars painted on to the ceiling.
IT IS the evening and I find Ms Bhutto relaxing after a hard day of politics and legal battles. Ten years ago, she was one of the most powerful women in the world, as the first elected woman leader of an Islamic country.
After being dismissed as prime minister twice since those great days, she has seen her powers progressively stripped and her husband put in prison. Now she is fighting desperately to fend off her own prison sentence. In days or weeks a judge is to give his verdict on one of the key charges against her: that she received a kickback worth millions of pounds while prime minister. Theoretically, she could end up in jail.
SHE SPENT that very morning in court, accusing the trial judge, Justice Qayyum, of bias. When the judge closed the case after a shouting match, Benazir immediately called a press conference. In an hour-long speech, which her critics would describe as slightly hysterical and which her supporters would call merely animated, she accused the government of arranging a stitch-up. By nightfall, she has calmed down a bit. After a meeting with a European ambassador - whom she declines to identify - it is time for The Independent.
Though she is happy to talk about the 200-odd pieces of litigation against her, and demonstrates her extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the law in about five different countries, she is clearly in the mood for a chat.
SUNDAY HAD been a nice day, she says. She was staying at her home in Karachi, Pakistan's huge southern port city, and had seen her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in hospital. He has a bad back and is periodically allowed out of jail for treatment.
Then she had gone for lunch with her cousin, who had just flown in from Dubai. After that there was a photo-shoot for Fortune magazine. "The photographer was an Indian-American who knew the Gandhis and I, of course, knew Rajiv Gandhi, so we had a nice chat."
The only downside to the day was the pizza given to her at a school she visited. It tasted lovely but ruined the strict diet that she has been following since January. "Since Sunday it has been downhill." she complains.
AFTER A week of meetings with lawyers and visits to parliament it is the weekend again and my tea with Ms Bhutto - chocolate cake and minced meat rolls - stretches into dinner. Benazir, with her lapsed diet no doubt on her mind, merely picks at the barbecued chicken, kebabs, lentil curry, stir-fried beef, rice and noodles. She talks about William Hague, Baroness Thatcher, Monica Lewinsky, and the addictive properties of sugar.
Though fairly damning about Ms Lewinsky, she refuses to let Bill Clinton off the hook. "People say that Monica made all the running but I don't think so. He must have given her, you know, a look." And she clearly likes Baroness Thatcher. "She is a very considerate woman. I admire her very much.
TRUE TO HER habit of visiting former state leaders who have fallen on hard times, Baroness Thatcher met Benazir recently. Other British politicians have refused to meet her since her halo slipped and Ms Bhutto is deeply hurt. "I was brought up to believe that power was a guest that comes and goes," she tells me. "But what lasts for ever is your good name. That is what is important to me and when people who looked up to you look at you with disdain then it makes me upset and angry."
Throughout the last half hour of dinner, the sound ofsinging has filtered through to the house. In the garden outside, boxed in by 12ft-high walls, her staff are chanting prayers for victory in her court battles. At 11 o'clock Benazir excuses herself and goes to join them.
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