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Pakistan: Bhutto Says Prime Minister Using Her To Hide Misdeeds

Prague, 21 April 1999 (RFE/RF) -- Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was sentenced last week to prison on corruption charges, says she wasn't given a fair trial. And she says current prime minister Nawaz Sharif is using her case to hide his own misdeeds.

Bhutto spoke yesterday in London with Sharon Tabari of RFE/RL's Persian Service to give her response to recent events.

Bhutto said no witness was allowed to appear in her defense at the trial, which was held to investigate alleged kickbacks she and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, received from a Swiss company during the time she headed Pakistan's government.

A high court in the Pakistan city of Lahore found Bhutto and her husband guilty of the charges and sentenced them both to five years in prison and fined them more than 8 million dollars. Zardari is currently serving a jail sentence for corruption imposed after Bhutto lost power in November 1996. Both have been barred from holding public office.

She tells RFE/RL: "The prosecution produced all its witnesses and it was shown beyond a doubt that the contract started during the time of my predecessor, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, in his first term. That even the letter of intent was issued by his regime."

Bhutto said after she became prime minister in 1993 she never spoke with anyone concerning a contract with the Swiss company. She said the trial is politically motivated and pointed to the absence of witnesses on her behalf as proof.

There have been calls inside Pakistan to introduce Islamic Sharia law as a means of imposing strict order and reducing widespread crime. Sharif has supported such moves in the past. Bhutto, however, spoke out against the idea and tied her trial to attempts by Islamists to control Pakistan.

"I'm concerned not only about what's happening to me but also to the future of my own country. I feel the attempt by the Islamists is to deny liberals in Pakistan a leader who can challenge them."

Bhutto also says Prime Minister Sharif has little support after dismissing several highly placed officials since taking office in 1997 and is trying to turn the country into a one-party government. She points out a British court this month imposed a 32-million-dollar fine against Sharif's family claiming the family used an offshore company to borrow money for illegal purposes. She says he's using her trial as a smokescreen to cover up his own misdeeds.

Bhutto has already sent letters to world leaders telling them the trial was biased and partisan. Her lawyers are appealing the verdict.

Bhutto says she has no immediate plans to return to Pakistan and that the leadership of her party has asked her to defer coming back. She says she's staying in Britain less because of the warrants against her than for the safety of her children, who are now in Dubai.

She tells RFE/RL that someday she would like to lead her country while enjoying a majority of representation from her party -- something she says she never had during her term as prime minister.