Surrounded by 335 acres of prime Surrey countryside, Rockwood House is a mansion that tries so hard to be quintessentially English it has a replica of the nearby village pub in its basement.
The £4m neo-Tudor pile, unkempt after lying empty for at least five years, seems far removed from the intrigues and power struggles of political life 4,000 miles away in Pakistan. But after eight years of denial and dogged investigation, the nine-bedroom house has finally been revealed as a key part of a labyrinthine corruption allegation that links the Isle of Man, a stuffed Bengal tiger and Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan.
Ms Bhutto's government was dismissed in 1996 amid claims that Rockwood House, overlooking the South Downs close to Guildford, had been bought by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, with money made illegally as investment minister during his wife's premiership.
Mr Zardari, who is in jail in Karachi on corruption charges, has always denied owning the property. Pakistani investigators have failed to link him to the three Isle of Man companies that bought the mansion in 1995. His wife, who lives in exile between London and Dubai after being forced to flee Pakistan in 1999, said her husband had told her on "10 occasions" that he had not bought the house, and she said she had never been to Surrey. She says she and her husband are victims of a political conspiracy.
But this week the saga of what the Pakistani media refers to as the "Surrey Palace" took a surprising turn when a lawyer for Mr Zardari told a court on the Isle of Man that his client was the "beneficial owner" of Rockwood House and intended to retain it.
This could prove problematic, since the mansion was sold last week for £4m by the liquidator realising the assets of the three Isle of Man companies after they left creditors, including the builder who renovated the property, with debts of at least £500,000. The Pakistani government has struck a deal with the liquidator, subject to the approval of an Isle of Man judge, to retain the balance of the proceeds after all creditors have been paid.
Alan Perry, the London-based lawyer retained by the Pakistani government's National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to pursue its claim of ownership of Rockwood House and the adjoining properties, including two farms, said yesterday: "These properties were acquired during a period when Ms Bhutto was in office. They have just been sold by the liquidator.
"The government of Pakistan has been saying for years that these properties were acquired with the benefit of corruption, and that the real beneficiaries behind the [Isle of Man] trusts and companies were Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari."
The allegations date from the mid-1990s, when Ms Bhutto's political fortunes reached their zenith. The daughter of Pakistan's most popular leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed by the military, she swept to power in 1988 and 1995, becoming the first female political leader in the Muslim world. On both occasions she was forced to resign. Her supporters say she fell foul of a trenchant, military-backed establishment that could not accept a woman with political power.
The Pakistani government says she and her husband, known as "Mr Ten Per Cent" for the commissions he allegedly took on contracts while industry minister during his wife's second term, were sacked for "corruption, misrule and nepotism". The NAB says the couple salted away £830m and have 26 international bank accounts and 14 properties, including the Kensington flat where Ms Bhutto lives while in London.
They say Mr Zardari intended to use Rockwood House as a family home and ordered £1.7m of renovations, including polo pitches, a stud farm, a nine-hole golf course and a helicopter pad. During a visit to the village pub, the Dog and Pheasant, Mr Zardari said he liked the building so much he wanted to buy it. When told it was not for sale, a replica of the bar area was built in the basement of the mansion.
Paul Keating, the builder in charge of the renovation, said Mr Zardari told him the project was "top secret", and eight crates of artefacts, including antique rifles and a stuffed Bengal tiger, arrived in spring 1996 from the Bhuttos' home in Karachi.
Ms Bhutto, 58, has been told by the Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf, that she faces imprisonment if she returns to Pakistan. But she and her husband remain defiant. She said she was not named in any Rockwood House proceedings.
Their representatives said Mr Zardari's claim to ownership was "tactical". Sources said the move could be a ploy to run up legal costs to wipe out Karachi's share of the sale proceeds.
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