Bhutto: Symbol of Hope with a Checkered Past Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, twice ousted under suspicion of corruption, is now being hailed as a symbol of hope in Pakistan. Longtime Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid weighs the tangled history and uncertain future of an opposition leader.
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Bhutto: Symbol of Hope with a Checkered Past

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Bhutto: Symbol of Hope with a Checkered Past

Bhutto: Symbol of Hope with a Checkered Past

Bhutto: Symbol of Hope with a Checkered Past

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Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto speaks to the media after breaking through police lines outside her home on Nov. 9 in Islamabad. Warrick Page/Getty Images hide caption

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Warrick Page/Getty Images

As the unrest in Pakistan continues, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is being hailed as a symbol of hope, says Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and a longtime journalist in Pakistan.

Citizen support for Bhutto is strong — but hardly universal — despite her having been twice ousted under suspicion of corruption. Bhutto still faces charges of money laundering in Switzerland and other accusations in Pakistan. "She's had certainly a very mixed past," Rashid reports.

Bhutto is presently under house arrest as the nation remains under a state of emergency declared this month by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Police in Pakistan have responded to pro-democracy protesters with tear gas, batons and mass arrests. Bhutto and her supporters have continued to rally the demonstrators and are now said to be working toward a partnership with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf deposed in a 1999 coup. Musharraf has said general elections will take place in January.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan after nearly a decade of self-imposed exile. Rashid argues that not everyone there remembers the former prime minister fondly, but many consider her better than the alternative. "This is the hand that Pakistanis have to play at the moment, against continued military rule," he says.

Benazir Bhutto Led Tumultuous Life in Politics

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on All Things Considered

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Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October after eight years in exile. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Benazir Bhutto took up the mantle of her executed father to twice lead Pakistan as prime minister. She was assassinated Thursday while campaigning to win leadership again and redeem the years she spent in exile. She was 54.

To the outside world, Bhutto represented both the promise and peril of Pakistan. She was the only woman to rise so far in the Islamic nation, where she championed secular rule but also became entangled in the country's culture of corruption.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October, after eight years in exile in London and Dubai. She narrowly survived a suicide attack upon her return.

At a rally Thursday before her death, Bhutto alluded to the danger she faced, as she had done on several occasions in recent months.

"I put my life in danger and came here because I feel this country is in danger. People are worried. We will bring the country out of this crisis," Bhutto told supporters in her final speech.

The Harvard and Oxford-educated Bhutto had become an icon in the West, which found it hard to resist the allure of the charismatic female leader of an otherwise male-dominated Islamic nation.

She appeared in a People list of the "World's 50 Most Beautiful People" and in an arrest notice from Interpol, the international police agency on charges of official corruption while in office.

Still accused, Bhutto returned to Pakistan two months ago after living in exile in London and Dubai.

Leaders of her Pakistan People's Party had been negotiating with the military government of President Pervez Musharraf on a deal that reportedly could have exempted her from prosecution and given her a share in the government.

But shortly after her return, Musharraf declared a state of emergency and placed her briefly under house arrest, effectively ending all talk of a power-sharing deal.

Bhutto's Life in Politics

Bhutto's tumultuous life in politics followed a family tradition that began with her grandfather. The wealthy feudal lord helped clear the way for the creation of Pakistan as an autonomous state for South Asian Muslims in 1947.

Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served terms as Pakistan's president and prime minister in the 1970s. He was deposed in a military coup, convicted of ordering the murder of a political rival and hanged in 1979. His political party and his family have always maintained that he was falsely accused and tried on the orders of the coup leader, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.

Bhutto was 26 and under house arrest with her mother in her home city of Karachi when her father was hanged. She was a graduate of Harvard University and had studied international law and diplomacy at Oxford. For the next six years, she worked on a book (Pakistan: The Gathering Storm, 1983) and served as an aide to her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, who had assumed the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party.

In 1984, Bhutto was allowed to return to the United Kingdom, where she became the party leader in exile. In late 1987, she married Asif Ali Zardari, the hereditary leader of an important Pakistani tribal group. The couple has three children.

Leading the Country

In 1988, Pakistan's military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, was killed in an airplane crash. In the general election that followed, the PPP won a majority of seats in parliament, and Benazir Bhutto was chosen as prime minister.

Bhutto's party promised to remove the last traces of feudalism from Pakistani society and to run the government in accordance with socialist principals. She also promised to improve the lot of women and repeal provisions of Pakistani law that restrict women's freedom, but her government was unable to overcome conservative opposition in parliament.

Bhutto had cast herself as a strong opponent of terrorism. But her opponents claimed her government provided aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the belief that the Islamist movement would bring stability to that country.

Dismissed from Government

Bhutto's government was dismissed in 1990 amid charges of corruption involving her husband. The leader of an important tribal group in Pakistan, Zardari became known as "Mr. Ten Percent" during his wife's tenure, because of allegations that he extorted that percentage from people seeking to do business with the Pakistani government. He served two years in prison but was released when Bhutto won re-election in 1993.

In 1996, Bhutto's government was dismissed a second time, again on corruption charges involving her husband. The couple was accused of — among other things — accepting bribes to grant a single dealer a monopoly on importing gold to Pakistan. Investigators found a document appearing to show that the dealer deposited $10 million into Zardari's bank account in Dubai, a document the dealer says was forged.

Allegations against the couple also surfaced in France, Poland and Switzerland. Zardari was held in prison for another eight years without trial before his release by the Musharraf government in 2004.

In the end, Bhutto's secular credentials in Muslim-dominated Pakistan and her close ties to the U.S. could have been her downfall. Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban hated Bhutto for her close ties to the Americans and support for the war on terrorism. In the months before her assassination, a local Taliban leader had reportedly threatened to target her with suicide attacks.