It sounds like a story straight from one of Jeffery Archer’s novels. A story riddled with vengeance, intrigues, tragedies, ironies and sufferings. But it is real and without any ending.
Who could have thought that a cabinet meeting chaired by the then prime minister of Pakistan, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in September 1994, would haunt her for the rest of her life and keep the next PPP government under the sword of Damocles. In that fateful cabinet meeting, a unanimous decision was taken for granting contract to two pre-shipment inspection agencies, namely SGS and Cotecna.
According to Ahmad Sadik, the then Principal Secretary and Prosecution Witness Number 9 (in Reference under Sections 3 & 4 of The Ehtesab Act of 1997, Judgement, Para 24): “This meeting was a continuation of pre-shipment inspection scheme which was floated in the year 1991. Deliberation and discussion has taken place thoroughly touching all the points in the meeting and codal formalities were observed for approval and award of contract.”
The scheme was floated in 1991 by Nawaz Sharif when he was the prime minister. Two companies were shortlisted, but due to a political crisis, the decision could not be taken till a new government was installed. That was done by Ms Bhutto. The scheme began on January 1, 1995 and was in operation for 18 months. It helped the CBR in generating more revenues (Rs27 billion) and enabled the Customs to become more transparent. In 1997, the PML-N government came back to power and tried to reverse all the policies and actions of the previous PPP government. Contracts were cancelled, cases were instituted against foreign investors and a witch-hunt was conducted against Ms Bhutto and her husband. Five cases were filed against her and 13 against Mr Zardari — among them the famous SGS Cotecna case and one filed in Switzerland for money laundering.
It is ironic that the same judge who sentenced Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari to five years imprisonment in this case, Justice Malik Qayyum, is also the one who wrote a letter to the Swiss authorities dated May 22, 2008, saying: “Contract was awarded to pre-shipment inspection companies in good faith in discharge of official functions by the state functionaries in accordance with rules.”
After the conviction, tapes surfaced of a telephone conversation which showed that Justice Qayyum was directed to expedite the case, which he did willingly. The sentence was challenged in the Supreme Court and a seven-member bench headed by Justice Bashir Jahangiri was formed in March 2001. The bench concluded that Malik Qayyum had acquired “a personal interest” in the case and sent it back for retrial. Since then, the case has never been taken up by the courts.
In Geneva, the proceedings against the former prime minister were initiated on November 3, 1997. The trial continued for 11 years and several people were heard as witnesses. The witnesses rejected the allegations and said that due process and best practices were observed in granting the contract to the two pre-shipment inspection agencies.
The public prosecutor of the Republic and Canton of Geneva went on to write in his order that the testimonies collected showed “no conclusive evidence which would allow to invalidate the final observation that the procedure of contract allocation was not marred by irregularities”.
The main character of this story is no more — she sacrificed her life at the altar of democracy. Yet the hunters are still after her. Perhaps, they want a trial of her grave.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2012.
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