My blood froze when Zardari became Prez: Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto, niece of slain former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, says her "blood froze" on the day Asif Ali Zardari became the country`s president and prompted her to send away her younger brother from the country fearing for his safety.

Last Updated: Apr 03, 2010, 13:05 PM IST

New Delhi: Fatima Bhutto, niece of slain former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, says her "blood froze" on the day Asif Ali Zardari became the country`s president and prompted her to send away her younger brother from the country fearing for his safety.

Zardari was accused of plotting the murder of Fatima`s father Murtaza Bhutto but had been acquitted of the charge.

"On 20 September, 2008, on the 12th anniversary of Papa`s death, Asif Zardari took his oath as President of Pakistan. The ceremony had been scheduled for the day before, the 19th, but had been moved on the orders of the new President, who rescheduled his big day for Saturday, Papa`s barsi," Fatima writes in her just-released memoir ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’ (Penguin/Rs 699).

"As he stood in front of Parliament, which had voted him into the post almost unanimously (in the same highly democratic way that General Musharraf was `elected` President), he paused in his speech and asked for a moment of silence to mark the occasion of his brother-in-law`s death. My blood froze. It was as if he was taunting us.”

"But that would be nothing compared to what would follow. On Zardari`s first Pakistan Day as President he would honour Shoaib Suddle, one of the most senior police officers present at the scene when my father was killed. Suddle was awarded Hilal-e-Imtiaz, a national medal in recognition of his services to the people of Pakistan. Shoaib Suddle was then made the head of the Federal Investigation Bureau," Fatima writes.

Murtaza was killed on September 20, 1996, when Fatima was 14, in a shootout with police near his Karachi residence. On December 03, 2009, a Karachi court acquitted 20 policemen charged with the killing.

After Benazir`s government was dismissed in 1996, Zardari was detained for having a part in Murtaza`s assassination. However, no charges were ever proved for want of evidence as the scene of Murtaza`s assassination was wiped clean before police investigators could arrive.

Zardari`s ascendancy also saw Fatima packing off her younger brother Zulfi. In the epilogue, dated April 2009, Fatima writes: "As I finish this book, it feels as though the world around me is slowly collapsing. There is a peculiar sense of déjà vu as I write about the death of my father. There is a similar danger, a tangible feeling that we are not safe. Seven months ago, I packed my bags and flew to see my brother off in a foreign country.”

"Zulfi had enrolled for the start of his A-level year, twelfth grade, at a private school not far from our house in Karachi. Some of his friends had got into the same school. They had made plans for a more relaxed year in which they would be treated like college students. In the autumn of 2008 Zulfi had just turned 18 and was aware how precarious our situation had become since Asif Zardari had acquitted himself in our father`s murder case. He was aware that because of our history with the man now called President, we weren`t safe in our country any longer.”

"When Zardari announced himself as the PPP`s unanimously chosen presidential candidate we knew he would stop at nothing to reach the pinnacle of power. There was no turning back for him. Against all odds, he was going to rule Pakistan. We made the decision to take Zulfi out of the country. It was decision we had been avoiding, hoping it would not be necessary, since Benazir was killed in December 2007.”

"But as Zulfi was the only surviving male heir of the Bhuttos, we couldn`t take the risk of leaving him vulnerable. Besides Zulfi, the only remaining Bhuttos are (cousin) Sassi and I. We don`t live in a country with a free press, we don`t live in a country with an independent judiciary - or any judiciary for that matter. We have no safeguards against a violent and vindictive government," Fatima writes.

But she adds that in spite of the violence her family has suffered, including the killing of her father Murtaza Bhutto, she "could never leave" the country.

"Amidst all this madness, all these ghosts and memories of times past, it feels like the world around me is crumbling, slowly flaking away," she writes in her just-published memoir ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’.

"Sometimes, when it`s this late at night (she writes in the Epilogue dated April 2009), I feel my chest swell with a familiar anxiety. I think, at these times, that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it for anything to make sense; nothing here ever does.”

"But then the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of mynah birds. And I know I could never leave," Fatima writes.

The book comes at a time when Zardari is set to be deprived of his sweeping powers through a constitutional amendment being tabled in Parliament on Friday to transfer to the prime minister major powers like the appointment of armed forces chiefs and reduce the president to a titular head of state.

The Bhutto family has had to contend with violence for the last four decades, losing one member every decade. Fatima`s grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed in 1979 after what many consider to be a kangaroo trial. This was after he had been deposed as president by then Army chief Gen Zia-ul Haq.

Her uncle Shahnawaz, 27, was found dead in Nice, France on July 18, 1985 under mysterious circumstances and the Bhutto family firmly believed he was poisoned. No one was brought to trial for the murder.

Her father, Murtaza, Shahnawaz`s brother, was killed on September 20, 1996, and her aunt Benazir was assassinated on December 27, 2007.