LONDON — The mood had all the makings of a scene from Casablanca. But the meeting at Karachi's century-old Sind Club last May was, in reality, a private glimpse at what the future held for one of Asia's youngest and best-known rulers.
"Here's the smoking gun," the lawyer whispered under the whirling drone of ancient ceiling fans that barely cut Karachi's summer heat.
"Believe me, Benazir is finished. This is what's going to bury her."
The lawyer then handed over to a Times reporter a thick stack of documents that he said would spell the end of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's turbulent 20-month reign in power. And now, it would appear, he may well have been right.
The lawyer was a key strategist for opposition leader Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, who was named caretaker prime minister last week when Bhutto's entire government was fired for corruption and incompetence. And the as-yet undisclosed documents he handed over that day helped build Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan's case against the 37-year-old prime minister, her party, her government and her family.
In the coming weeks, those documents and hundreds more like them are likely to do even more damage to the woman who became a charismatic symbol of freedom abroad but a symbol of expectations denied and promises broken in her own impoverished country of 107 million.
"All scandals will be looked into," Jatoi's new commerce minister, Elahi Bakhsh Soomro, declared last week in flagging the caretaker government's intention to build a case of corruption against Bhutto's ruling family and friends--a campaign that has the full endorsement of Pakistan's powerful armed forces. "All deals and deeds of the government-controlled corporations will be examined thoroughly."
Analysts in Islamabad now say they expect the interim government to try to build a monolithic case of public corruption against the Bhutto Administration that is so strong it will prevent her from contesting new elections, now scheduled for Oct. 24.
The government started that process on Sunday by arresting at least eight people, including two associates of Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari.
Last week, Bhutto said she suspected that the government would indeed try to build a case against her. When asked whether she will be given a chance to reclaim her position, she told reporters: "I doubt it. I doubt it. I don't believe that they can face me politically. They couldn't face me politically yesterday, and they can't face me politically today."
She attempted to cast the entire inquiry as a political witch hunt aimed solely at neutralizing her, adding: "We have not done injustice to anyone."
But, just beneath the surface of such rhetoric, there are the documents, which hint at a mountain of corruption, patronage, favoritism and nepotism during Bhutto's 20-month administration. Although no cases of corruption have been filed or even suggested against Bhutto herself, the documents do provide ample evidence that several of her senior Cabinet ministers and ruling party leaders have attempted to use their positions to enrich themselves or the party.
What is more, allegations against Bhutto's husband, Zardari, and his family, have been irrepressible. Commonly referred to in the international press as "Mr. 10%"--a transparent reference to commission-taking--Zardari has in recent months filed a number of libel cases stemming from the allegations against both Pakistani and foreign newspapers. The cases are all unresolved.
All these cases and more are expected to get a full airing in the weeks ahead. But what is already clear from the documents that Jatoi's aide leaked over lunch at the Sind Club that day is that there is a pattern of favor-seeking, patronage and abuse of power that developed during Bhutto's short reign--a pattern that the prime minister at the very least tolerated.
Within days of taking office, Bhutto herself set the tone, appointing her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, to be her senior minister without portfolio--a position functionally so powerful it was Bhutto's mother who actually took the reins of government during her daughter's frequent absences from the capital.
Days after that appointment, Bhutto and her ruling Pakistan Peoples Party gave the prime minister's father-in-law, Hakim Ali Zardari, the chairmanship of the National Assembly's key public accounts committee, a watchdog position traditionally reserved for the opposition. And, in less than two years' time, Bhutto doled out no less than 20,000 political patronage jobs to her party workers--that at a time when unemployment ranked high among Pakistan's most gnawing crises.
But the documents take it a step further.
A typical case was that of the Islamabad Stock Exchange.