Fatima Bhutto doesn’t mince words when it comes to Asif Ali Zardari, widower of her aunt Benazir Bhutto and the current president of Pakistan.
“It’s not the first time that criminals have come to lead nations but it is distressing to watch the White House, 10 Downing Street [the UK], the European Union support a man who before he became the president was fighting corruption cases in Switzerland and Spain and England and four charges of murder in Pakistan,” she says.
Well, at least she’s not satirising the president, an offence which, she has just told the audience at Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co’s literary festival, now carries a sentence of six to 13 years in jail.
Bhutto holds Zardari responsible for the 1996 murder of her father, Murtaza, the subject of her book Songs of Blood and Sword, from which she has just read to the festival audience.
The future president served time from 1997 to 2004 on corruption and murder charges relating to that case and others. He was freed by a judge who declared the charges false and Zardari and his supporters claim that the charges were politically motivated.
The current Pakistani president has served two other terms in jail, having won the nickname “Mr Ten Per Cent” for his alleged propensity for corruption when serving as a minister in his wife’s first government from 1987-1990. As Fatima Bhutto points out, both Benazir and Zardari have faced corruption cases outside Pakistan. The Swiss case was dropped in 2008, on the request of the Pakistani government, but corruption officials have now asked for it to be reopened.
Fatima Bhutto tends to believe all the accusations against her uncle by marriage, who became president after the fall of General-President Pervez Musharraf and the assassination of Benazir on her return from exile in 2007.
She doesn’t seem to believe that he has changed his ways once in office, either, even if she can cite no evidence at the moment.
“Unfortunately, the information comes after they tend to leave power but, you know, certainly the corruption seems to be carrying on unhindered,” she says.
“It’s a country that’s facing 20-hour electricity cuts in the winter and 23-hour cuts in the summer. There’s intense censorship in the country … So I think, unfortunately, we don’t have any evidence to the contrary.”
Zardari inherited his political legitimacy – and thus the presidency – from his wife. She was prime minister twice and led of the People’s Party (PPP), a position she in turn inherited from her father and Fatima’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His premiership in the 1970s was brought to an end by a military coup and his own execution, allegedly on the orders of military dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.
Two of Fatima’s uncles have also been killed, so it is a dangerous business being a Bhutto. But it also means that you are part of one of the five families which have a stranglehold on Pakistan’s politics.
The PPP clearly intends the dynasty to continue. Before her death, Benazir made it clear that her son, Bilawal, should succeed her. Despite the fact that he is currently studying at Britain’s Oxford University and has limited political experience, the party dutifully appointed him joint chairman along with his father after his mother’s death.
Fatima Bhutto did not go into politics. She chose writing, inspired, she says, by books like Malcolm X’s autobiography, British journalist Robert Fisk’s book on Lebanon Pity the Nation and the novels The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird.
And, although her mother heads a breakaway faction of the PPP, she lambasts the control of the country’s economy by 27 families and its politics by five.
“I think absolutely it’s time for all the dynasties to butt out and it’s time for the field to be opened up beyond five families or six families.”
So who would take over?
“Well, the people, you know. In a county of 180 million people there have to be more choices than just the usual suspects."
She points to gang-rape victim Mukhtar Mai, who has become a women’s rights campaigner, and the missing persons campaign, started by relatives of people kidnapped by the police and intelligence agencies, as evidence of potential leaders from outside the English-speaking elite.
“Pakistani women, they’ve got guts,” she told the book fanciers’ gathering.
A recent report by former Oxfam official Matt Waldman and released by the London School of Economics accused Pakistan’s spies, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), of deep involvement with the Taliban.
It even claimed that Zardari visited Taliban leaders in jail and promised them support in operations, once they were released. That charge has been hotly denied by the government and greeted with scepticism by many commentators.
But no-one seriously doubts that the ISI were involved with the Taliban and other Islamist armed groups from the beginning, in the aftermath of their US-backed involvement with the mujahedin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
“To assume that that’s ended miraculously I think is a bit naïve,” comments Fatima Bhutto, who appeals to world powers to pull out of her country.
“The world has to divest from Pakistan,” she says. “To keep giving the Pakistani state, a state that is totally unaccountable and totally untransparent 12 billion dollars in the Bush era and just about 10 billion dollars in the Obama era is not going to make anything easier – it’s going to make it harder.”
But, with Islamabad “the third front” in what she calls “this odious war on terror”, her wish may not be granted any day soon.
The Bhuttos - a Pakistani dynasty
Shah Nawaz Bhutto – educated in the UK under the Raj, appointed prime minister by the nawab of Junagadh, founded the Sindh People's Party, awarded the CBE and the OBE by the British, moved to Pakistan’s Sindh province after partition, becoming one of its wealthiest landowners.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – son of Shah Nawaz, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – fourth president of Pakistan (1971-1973), first elected prime minister of Pakistan (1973-1977), authorised Pakistan’s nuclear arms programme, toppled by a military coup and executed after the Supreme Court found him guilty of authorising the murder of a political opponent.
Murtaza Bhutto – eldest son of Zulfiqar Ali, campaigned against his father’s execution and, having failed, against the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, believed to have organised a left-wing armed group Al-Zulfikar which was involved in assassinations and an airplane hijacking, clashed with Benazir over Asif Ali Zardari’s role in her government, killed along with six party activists in a shoot-out with police at the age of 42
Shahnawaz Bhutto – son of Zulfiqar Ali, returned from studies in Switzerland to campaign aginst his father’s execution, returned to exile and continued to campaign against the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27 in Nice, southern France.
Benazir Bhutto – founded the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy coalition to fight Zia-ul-Haq, after six years of house arrest or imprisonment, went into exile in London, returning to become prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, faced several charges of corruption, went into exile again, returning in 2007 after a deal with military ruler Pervez Musharraf, assassinated at a political rally shortly after her return.
Asif Ali Zardari – husband of Benazir, earned the nickname “Mr Ten Per Cent” for alleged corruption when serving as a minister under her, jailed three times on blackmail, corruption and murder charges, became join leader of the PPP on Benazir’s assassination, current president of Pakistan.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – son of Benazir and Asif Ali Zardari, student at Britain’s Oxford University, became join leader of the PPP with his father after his mother’s assassination.
Fatima Bhutto - daughter of Murtaza, author and columnist, fierce critic of Asif Ali Zardari and Benazir, who she believes were responsible for the death of her father.