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Pakistan Corruption Trials to Determine Bhutto's Future

`SHE's infuriating. She's a lousy manager. And, she's maleable. But she's the only one,'' says a senior official of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) about party leader Benazir Bhutto. Many Pakistanis believe that Ms. Bhutto, who was ousted from her post as prime minister last month, is, whatever her flaws, the only national leader who has the power to stand up to the Army and the generals who have ruled Pakistan for for so much of its 43-year history.

But the Army wants Bhutto out, preferably out of politics altogether, and out of the country, according to some top military officials. ``We would prefer if she did not even participate in the elections,'' says a senior military officer, referring to the elections promised for next month by the new interim government.

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To discredit her and her former ministers, the caretaker government has initiated a series of trials - what they call ``the accountability process.'' This has been done at the instigation of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, observers say. The charges filed this week focus on bank fraud, corruption, and abuse of power.

So far, five former ministers and Bhutto herself have been notified that they are to face charges in courts. Criminal charges are also expected to be made against Bhutto's controversial husband, Asif Ali Zardari. The hearings, which begin Sunday, are to be held in special tribunals where the rules of law are weighed heavily against the defendant. In these courts, unlike the mainstream Pakistani legal system, bail is not allowed and it is up to the defendant to prove his or her innocence.

If the charges are proved, Bhutto and her colleagues could face seven years of disqualification from politics and will be excluded from next month's elections.

If Bhutto is not disqualified, her commitment to a true democracy - where power of elected politicians outweighs that of the Army - could still carry her through to power in the October election. The interim government that replaced her administration is viewed by many Pakistanis as a mere facade for rule by President Khan and the coterie of generals behind him.

The issue now is whether Bhutto is up to the job of taking on the generals. Her 20-month-long administration left so few practical achievements that her leadership qualities are being questioned even by members of her own party. Close aides say she is erratic, surrounded by opportunistic sycophants, and is under the control of her husband.

``This is no Iron Lady, for sure,'' says an aide gloomily.

The Army has made it clear that it does not want Bhutto back in power. Their principal complaint against her is that she tried by a series of transfers and promotions to elevate senior officers deemed loyal to the PPP. Such tactics were divisive and against the national interest of the defense of Pakistan, some senior Army officials argue. The Army also claims that during her term of office, the national development banks were ``plundered'' by ministers for huge loans for themselves and friends.

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But disqualifying Bhutto could boomerang against the fragile and splintered alliance opposing her at the polls. The Islamic Democratic Alliance, a grouping of nine conservative and religious parties, has its own problems. Damaging splits have appeared in the alliance as each of the component parties argued for the right to field their own candidates. It seems likely many will compete as individual parties splitting the anti-PPP front.

The forthcoming trial could stimulate a wave of sympathy for Bhutto and the PPP. Arrests are taking place on a large scale as the electoral candidates become known. Many PPP members and former parliamentarians have been imprisoned under the Maintenance of Public Order Act that allows authorities to keep anyone in jail for three months without trial.

Bhutto vowed the forthcoming trials will not sway her from participating in the Oct. 24 election.

``We will not take this laying down. We will not leave the field,'' she said this week. But she concedes that not all her ministers had been ``angels.'' ``We may not have had a perfect government, we might have made mistakes. But compared with the previous government, we were more competent and honest.''

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