/ 1 January 2008

Bhutto had been set to reveal ‘poll-rig plot’

Benazir Bhutto had planned to brief visiting American politicians about an alleged poll-rigging plot orchestrated by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies on the day she was killed, senior officials of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said on Monday.

Bhutto had obtained details of an Islamabad safe house run by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency from where it intended to manipulate the poll, said Sarfraz Khan Lashari, an official on her party’s 10-member election-monitoring cell.

The ISI-led operation would rig the vote in favour of President Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Q party through ballot stuffing in constituencies across Sindh and Punjab provinces, he said.

Bhutto intended to discuss the allegations, which had been provided by informants within the intelligence services, with Senator Arlen Specter and Representative Patrick Kennedy, on the evening she was killed.

”That’s what she was going to explain to the US senators,” he said. ”We have a lot of evidence that the government is involved in rigging. It was going to be discussed on that evening.”

Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, confirmed that his wife had received allegations about the Islamabad safe house. ”Yes we know about that,” he said on Monday.

He refused to give further details, saying it was ”not the right time” to discuss them.

The Guardian was given a rough location of the safe house by a PPP official but a search in Islamabad failed to pinpoint the building.

The ISI has a long history of meddling with elections in Pakistan, usually in the interest of the country’s military establishment. In 1990 the ISI received 140-million rupees (£1,1-million at current values) to rig national elections, according to Supreme Court testimony by the then-chief of army staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg.

There is no ISI spokesperson but a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the claims. ”How can you run an election-rigging campaign from a safe house? There is a lot of talk about the ISI but not much substance,” he said.

Lashari, an environmental economist, said the PPP had prepared two reports on vote-rigging. The first, about 200 pages, detailed election abuses across Pakistan and was intended for presentation to Western diplomats in Islamabad.

A smaller report, identifying the ISI safe house in Islamabad, was of much greater sensitivity.

Lashari said that document was not even for circulation in private, and Bhutto intended to discuss it only with selected diplomats and politicians. ”It was very sensitive. The details were for people who were sympathetic to the party,” he said.

Lashari said he thought an official from the British high commission was among those to be taken into confidence. A spokesperson in Islamabad said the British high commission had not received any reports from the PPP of ISI rigging.

Before and after her return from exile on October 18, Bhutto made repeated allegations that fundamentalist sympathisers within the country’s intelligence services were trying to kill her.

The party will decide shortly whether to make the poll-rigging reports public, Lashari said. — Guardian Unlimited Â