February 13, 2008

Doesn’t 911 have Google maps?

Posted in Commentary at 2:41 am by Iram

I was standing in the parking lot at Target when I heard some excited conversation going on a few rows down. Assuming it to be somebody on the phone, I ignored it and continued walking to my car, but soon the sounds that I had taken to be conversation turned into pleas for help. I turned in the direction of the commotion and tried to figure out what was going on. An African-American woman was standing by her truck, screaming something into the cell phone that she held up to her ear with one hand, while using her other hand to try to lift a lump off the floor. I moved closer and realized that it was not a lump – it was a man.

It seemed that her husband had collapsed while getting out of their truck and she was on the phone to 911 to get some help. Within seconds a small crowd had gathered around the woman. While some of the surrounding people also pulled out their phones to call 911, others helped raise the man off the ground and sat him up in the driver’s seat. His face drooped on one side, and his breathing was labored and gurgling – he was having a stroke and it seemed like he was going to choke on his tongue if somebody didn’t do something about his position. But before anybody could make any comment, he collapsed over again, this time laying himself down on his side on the passenger seat. I watched the whole scene, frozen in place. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books about the multiple causes of strokes and the symptoms seen in admitted stroke patients, and even the drugs that we’re supposed to give to stroke patients, but not once did I read about what to do when somebody has a stroke right before my eyes.

As these thoughts wandered through my panic-stricken mind I realized that all of the callers on the line to 911 were looking at each other, shocked. They had been requesting an ambulance to the Target that sits on Old Spanish Trail across the street from the Reliant Arena, but no ambulance could be dispatched without a street address. Was it not enough that we’ve given you an intersection? Apparently not. Are you kidding me? What store posts its street address in front for all of the public to read? But the operator was adamant. She simply could not dispatch the ambulance without a street address. Finally, a security officer noticed the commotion and made his way over to the crowd. He gave us the street address and the ambulance came speeding from the nearby Houston Medical Center, but I still stood in shock. One thing that I DO remember about stroke is that the faster a patient receives treatment, the better their prognosis. But in this case, the poor man was denied help for an additional five minutes simply because nobody had the exact street address of the store. When we’re talking about blood supply to the human brain, five minutes is a very long time.

December 2, 2007

Benazir Bhutto

Posted in Commentary at 4:40 pm by Iram

Amidst the recent crisis in Pakistan that ended in Pervez Musharraf removing his uniform and holding the Pakistani Presidential Office as a civilian, I received numerous questions regarding the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the impoverished country that is my cultural motherland. Many were surprised at my outright dislike of Ms. Bhutto. After all, she was the first woman leader of a Muslim country. How could I, an independent Muslim woman who values liberty and women’s rights, not like the idea of a woman returning to office in Pakistan? It should be a symbol of forthcoming liberation and development in the country, shouldn’t it? When asked verbally I did my best to explain my opinion of Ms. Bhutto, her corruption, her utter lack of competency as a political leader, and her misuse of power. But for those of you who didn’t ask yet are still interested, here is an article published almost a decade ago in the New York Times that outlines Benazir Bhutto’s life story and her stint in the world of Pakistani politics:


A decade after she led this impoverished nation from military rule to democracy, Benazir Bhutto is at the heart of a widening corruption inquiry that Pakistani investigators say has traced more than $100 million to foreign bank accounts and properties controlled by Ms. Bhutto’s family.

Starting from a cache of Bhutto family documents bought for $1 million from a shadowy intermediary, the investigators have detailed a pattern of secret payments by foreign companies that sought favors during Ms. Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister.

The documents leave uncertain the degree of involvement by Ms. Bhutto, a Harvard graduate whose rise to power in 1988 made her the first woman to lead a Muslim country. But they trace the pervasive role of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who turned his marriage to Ms. Bhutto into a source of virtually unchallengeable power.

In 1995, a leading French military contractor, Dassault Aviation, agreed to pay Mr. Zardari and a Pakistani partner $200 million for a $4 billion jet fighter deal that fell apart only when Ms. Bhutto’s Government was dismissed. In another deal, a leading Swiss company hired to curb customs fraud in Pakistan paid millions of dollars between 1994 and 1996 to offshore companies controlled by Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto’s widowed mother, Nusrat.

In the largest single payment investigators have discovered, a gold bullion dealer in the Middle East was shown to have deposited at least $10 million into an account controlled by Mr. Zardari after the Bhutto Government gave him a monopoly on gold imports that sustained Pakistan’s jewelry industry. The money was deposited into a Citibank account in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, one of several Citibank accounts for companies owned by Mr. Zardari.

Together, the documents provided an extraordinarily detailed look at high-level corruption in Pakistan, a nation so poor that perhaps 70 percent of its 130 million people are illiterate, and millions have no proper shelter, no schools, no hospitals, not even safe drinking water. During Ms. Bhutto’s five years in power, the economy became so enfeebled that she spent much of her time negotiating new foreign loans to stave off default on $62 billion in public debt.

A worldwide search for properties secretly bought by the Bhutto family is still in its early stages. But the inquiry has already found that Mr. Zardari went on a shopping spree in the mid-1990’s, purchasing among other things a $4 million, 355-acre estate south of London. In 1994 and 1995, he used a Swiss bank account and an American Express card to buy jewelry worth $660,000 — including $246,000 at Cartier Inc. and Bulgari Corp. in Beverly Hills, Calif., in barely a month.

In separate interviews in Karachi, Ms. Bhutto, 44, and Mr. Zardari, 42, declined to address specific questions about the Pakistani inquiry, which they dismissed as a political vendetta by Ms. Bhutto’s successor as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. In Karachi Central Prison, where he has been held for 14 months on charges of murdering Ms. Bhutto’s brother, Mr. Zardari described the corruption allegations as part of a ”meaningless game.” But he offered no challenge to the authenticity of the documents tracing some of his most lucrative deals.

Ms. Bhutto originally kindled wild enthusiasms in Pakistan with her populist politics, then suffered a heavy loss of support as the corruption allegations gained credence. In an interview at her fortresslike home set back from Karachi’s Arabian Sea beachfront, she was by turns tearful and defiant. ”Most of those documents are fabricated,” she said, ”and the stories that have been spun around them are absolutely wrong.”

But she refused to discuss any of the specific deals outlined in the documents, and did not explain how her husband had paid for his property and jewelry. Lamenting what she described as ”the irreparable damage done to my standing in the world” by the corruption inquiry, she said her family had inherited wealth, although not on the scale implied by tales of huge bank deposits and luxury properties overseas.

”I mean, what is poor and what is rich?” Ms. Bhutto asked. ”If you mean, am I rich by European standards, do I have a billion dollars, or even a hundred million dollars, even half that, no, I do not. But if you mean that I’m ordinary rich, yes, my father had three children studying at Harvard as undergraduates at the same time. But this wealth never meant anything to my brothers or me.”

The Student
Privileged Learning, Populist Platitudes
Ms. Bhutto, a student at Harvard and Oxford for six years in the 1970’s, has always presented herself as a tribune of the dispossessed. In a Harvard commencement speech in 1989, she said that ”avaricious politicans” had looted developing countries and left them without the means to tackle their social problems. Since she was ousted as Prime Minister during her second term, on Nov. 5, 1996, on charges that included gross corruption, she has been the leader of Pakistan’s main opposition group, the Pakistan People’s Party.

Some details of the allegations against Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari appeared in European and American newspapers last fall, after Pakistani investigators began releasing some of the Bhutto family documents. But a much fuller picture emerged when several thick binders full of documents were made available to The New York Times over a period of several days in October. The Times’s own investigation, lasting three months, extended from Pakistan to the Middle East, Europe and the United States, and included interviews with many of the central figures named by the Pakistani investigators.

Officials leading the inquiry in Pakistan say that the $100 million they have identified so far is only a small part of a windfall from corrupt activities. They maintain that an inquiry begun in Islamabad just after Ms. Bhutto’s dismissal in 1996 found evidence that her family and associates generated more than $1.5 billion in illicit profits through kickbacks in virtually every sphere of government activity — from rice deals, to the sell-off of state land, even rake-offs from state welfare schemes.

The Pakistani officials say their key break came last summer, when an informer offered to sell documents that appeared to have been taken from the Geneva office of Jens Schlegelmilch, whom Ms. Bhutto described as the family’s attorney in Europe for more than 20 years, and as a close personal friend. Pakistani investigators have confirmed that the original asking price for the documents was $10 million. Eventually the seller traveled to London and concluded the deal for $1 million in cash.

The identity of the seller remains a mystery. Mr. Schlegelmilch, 55, developed his relationship with the Bhutto family through links between his Iranian-born wife and Ms. Bhutto’s mother, who was also born in Iran. In a series of telephone interviews, he declined to say anything about Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto, other than that he had not sold the documents. ”It wouldn’t be worth selling out for $1 million,” he said.

The documents included: statements for several accounts in Switzerland, including the Citibank accounts in Dubai and Geneva; letters from executives promising payoffs, with details of the percentage payments to be made; memorandums detailing meetings at which these ”commissions” and ”remunerations” were agreed on, and certificates incorporating the offshore companies used as fronts in the deals, many registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The documents also revealed the crucial role played by Western institutions. Apart from the companies that made payoffs, and the network of banks that handled the money — which included Barclay’s Bank and Union Bank of Switzerland as well as Citibank — the arrangements made by the Bhutto family for their wealth relied on Western property companies, Western lawyers and a network of Western friends.

As striking as some of the payoff deals was the clinical way in which top Western executives concluded them. The documents showed painstaking negotiations over the payoffs, followed by secret contracts. In one case, involving Dassault, the contract specified elaborate arrangements intended to hide the proposed payoff for the fighter plane deal, and to prevent it from triggering French corruption laws.

Because Pakistan’s efforts to uncover the deals have been handled in recent months by close aides of Prime Minister Sharif, who has alternated with Ms. Bhutto at the head of four civilian Governments in Pakistan since the end of military rule 10 years ago, the investigation has been deeply politicized. Last week, the Sharif aides forwarded 12 corruption cases cases against Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Zardari and Nusrat Bhutto, 68, to the country’s ”accountability commission,” headed by a retired judge, who has the power to approve formal indictments.

Apart from bolstering Mr. Sharif’s power by exposing Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Sharif’s aides hope to protect him against the possibility that she will one day return to office and turn the tables on him. Mr. Sharif, who is 48, battled for years during Ms. Bhutto’s tenure to stay out of jail on a range of corruption charges, including allegations that he took millions of dollars in unsecured loans from state-owned banks for his family’s steel empire, then defaulted.

The Heritage
Landowning Class Accustomed to Rule
The Bhuttos are among a few hundred so-called feudal families, mostly large landowners, that have dominated politics and business in Pakistan since its creation in 1947.

Ms. Bhutto’s father was an Oxford-educated landowner who became Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the 1970’s, only to be ousted and jailed in 1977 when his military chief, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, mounted a coup. Mr. Bhutto was hanged two years later, after he refused General Zia’s offer of clemency for a murder conviction that many Pakistanis regarded as politically tainted.

Benazir Bhutto, the eldest of four children, spent the next decade under house arrest, in jail or in self-imposed exile, campaigning against General Zia’s military regime.

In 1987 she married Mr. Zardari, little known then for anything but a passion for polo. It was an arranged union, with Ms. Bhutto’s mother picking the groom. Many Pakistanis were startled by the social and financial differences. By the Bhuttos’ standards, Mr. Zardari’s family was of modest means, with limited holdings and a rundown movie theater in Karachi. Mr. Zardari’s only experience of higher education was a stint at a commercial college in London.

In part the match was intended to protect Ms. Bhutto’s political career by countering conservative Muslims’ grumbling about her unmarried status. Barely eight months later, in 1988, General Zia was killed in a mysterious plane crash, which opened the way for Ms. Bhutto to win a narrow election victory.

Years later, many Pakistanis still speak of the mesmeric effect she had at that moment, as the daughter who had avenged her father and the politician who had restored democracy. But euphoria faded fast. Within months, newspapers were headlining allegations of dubious deals. In the bazaars, traders soon dubbed Mr. Zardari ”Mr. 10 Percent.”

Twenty months after she took office, Ms. Bhutto was dismissed by Pakistan’s President on grounds of corruption and misrule. But the Sharif Government that succeeded Ms. Bhutto was unable to secure any convictions against her or her husband before Mr. Sharif, in turn, was ousted from office, also for corruption and misrule.

Mostly, Pakistanis gave Ms. Bhutto the benefit of the doubt after her first term, saying she might not have known what Mr. Zardari was doing. She was further aided by public suspicion of Mr. Sharif’s motives. A taciturn man who got his start in politics as a protege of General Zia, Mr. Sharif has left little doubt of his chagrin at having been overshadowed by Ms. Bhutto.

Part of his discomfort stemmed from her success in fostering a favorable image for herself in the United States, as a staunch foe of Muslim fundamentalism, a relentless campaigner for the rights of the poor and — a point she stressed in her Harvard speech in 1989 — an opponent of leaders who use their power for personal gain, then ”leave the cupboard bare.”

When she took office as Prime Minister again, after a victory in 1993, Ms. Bhutto struck many of her friends as a changed person, obsessed with her dismissal in 1990, high-handed to the point of arrogance, and contemptuous of the liberal principles she had placed at the center of her politics in the 1980’s. ”She no longer made the distinction between the Bhuttos and Pakistan,” said Hussain Haqqani, Ms. Bhutto’s former press secretary. ”In her mind, she was Pakistan, so she could do as she pleased.”

Ms. Bhutto’s twin posts, as Prime Minister and Finance Minister, gave her virtually free rein. Mr. Zardari became her alter ego, riding roughshod over the bureaucracy although he had no formal economic powers until Ms. Bhutto appointed him Investment Minister, reporting only to herself, in July 1996. They maintained an imperial lifestyle in the new Prime Minister’s residence in Islamabad, a $50 million mansion set on 110 acres on an Islamabad hilltop.

Within weeks of moving in, Mr. Zardari ordered 11.5 acres of protected woodland on an adjoining hilltop to be bulldozed for a polo field, an exercise track, stabling for 40 polo ponies, quarters for grooms and a parking lot for spectators. When a senior Government official, Mohammed Mehdi, objected to paying for the project with $1.3 million diverted from a budget for parks and other public amenities, Mr. Zardari ”categorically told me that he does not appreciate his orders to be examined and questioned by any authority,” according to an affidavit filed with the Pakistani investigators by Mr. Mehdi. A few months later, with the work in progress, Mr. Zardari had Mr. Mehdi dismissed.

The investigators say that Mr. Zardari and associates he brought into the Government, some of them old school friends, began reviewing state programs for opportunities to make money. It was these broader activities, the investigators assert, more than the relatively small number of foreign deals revealed in the documents taken from the Swiss lawyer, that netted the largest sums for the Bhutto family.

Among the transactions Mr. Zardari exploited, according to these officials: defense contracts; power plant projects; the privatization of state-owned industries; the awarding of broadcast licenses; the granting of an export monopoly for the country’s huge rice harvest; the purchase of planes for Pakistan International Airlines; the assignment of textile export quotas; the granting of oil and gas permits; authorizations to build sugar mills, and the sale of government lands.

The officials have said that Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari took pains to avoid creating a documentary record of their role in hundreds of deals. How this was done was explained by Najam Sethi, a former Bhutto loyalist who became the editor of Pakistan’s most popular political weekly, Friday Times, then was drafted to help oversee a corruption inquiry undertaken by the caretaker Government that ruled for three months after Ms. Bhutto’s dismissal in 1996.

Mr. Sethi said Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari adopted a system under which they assigned favors by writing orders on yellow Post-It notes and attaching them to official files. After the deals were completed, Mr. Sethi said, the notes were removed, destroying all trace of involvement.

When Mr. Sharif won a landslide election victory earlier this year, the corruption inquiry appeared, again, to fizzle. But a few days before the election, the caretakers hired Jules Kroll Associates, a New York investigative agency, to look for evidence of corruption abroad. The Kroll investigators put out feelers in Europe; Mr. Sharif’s aides said it was one of these that produced the offer to sell the Bhutto family documents, and that they took over from Kroll Associates and completed the deal.

The Negotiations
Flight and Crash Of a Dassault Deal
Potentially the most lucrative deal uncovered by the documents involved the effort by Dassault Aviation, the French military contractor, to sell Pakistan 32 Mirage 2000-5 fighter planes. These were to replace two squadrons of American-made F-16’s whose purchase was blocked when the Bush Administration determined in 1990 that Pakistan was covertly developing nuclear weapons.

In April 1995, Dassault found itself in arm’s-length negotiations with Mr. Zardari and Amer Lodhi, a Paris-based lawyer and banker who had lived for years in the United States, working among other things as an executive of the now-defunct Bank of Commerce and Credit International. Mr. Lodhi’s sister, Maleeha, a former Pakistan newspaper editor, became Ms. Bhutto’s Ambassador to the United States in 1994.

Mr. Schlegelmilch, the Geneva lawyer, wrote a memo for his files describing his talks at Dassault’s headquarters on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. According to the memo, the company’s executives offered a ”remuneration” of 5 percent to Marleton Business S.A., an offshore company controlled by Mr. Zardari. The memo indicated that in addition to Dassault, the payoff would be made by two companies involved in the manufacture of the Mirages: Snecma, an engine manufacturer, and Thomson-CSF, a maker of aviation electronics.

The documents offered intriguing insights into the anxieties that the deal aroused. In a letter faxed to Geneva, the Dassault executives — Jean-Claude Carrayrou, Dassault’s director of legal affairs, and Pierre Chouzenoux, the international sales manager — wrote that ”for reasons of confidentiality,” there would be only one copy of the contract guaranteeing the payoff. It would be kept at Dassault’s Paris office, available to Mr. Schlegelmilch only during working hours.

The deal reached with Mr. Schlegelmilch reflected concerns about French corruption laws, which forbid bribery of French officials but permit payoffs to foreign officials, and even make the payoffs tax-deductible in France. The Swiss and the French have resisted American pressures to sign a worldwide treaty that would hold all businesses to the ethical standards of American law, which sets criminal penalties for bribing foreign officials.

”It is agreed that no part of the above-mentioned remuneration will be transferred to a French citizen, or to any company directly or indirectly controlled by French individuals or companies, or to any beneficiary of a resident or nonresident bank account in France,” one of the Dassault documents reads.

Negotiations on the Mirage contract were within weeks of completion when Ms. Bhutto was dismissed by another Pakistani President in 1996. They have bogged down since, partly because Pakistan has run out of money to buy the planes, and partly because the Pakistan Army, still politically powerful a decade after the end of military rule, waited until Ms. Bhutto was removed to weigh in against the purchase.

A Dassault spokesman, Jean-Pierre Robillard, said Mr. Carrayrou, the legal affairs director, had retired. Two weeks after he was sent a summary of the documents, Mr. Robillard said that the company had decided to make no comment.

The Profits
Scams at Both Ends Of Customs System
One deal that appears to have made a handsome profit for Mr. Zardari involved Pakistan’s effort to increase its customs revenues. Since fewer than one in every 100 Pakistanis pays income tax, customs revenues represent the state’s largest revenue source. But for decades the system has been corrupted, with businesses underinvoicing imports, or paying bribes, to escape duties.

In the 1980’s Pakistan came under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to increase government revenues and to cut a runaway budget deficit. During Ms. Bhutto’s first term, Pakistan entrusted preshipment ”verification” of all major imports to two Swiss companies with blue-ribbon reputations, Societe Generale de Surveillance S.A. and a subsidiary, Cotecna Inspection S.A. But the documents suggest that this stab at improving Pakistan’s fiscal soundness was quickly turned to generating profits for the Bhutto family’s accounts.

In 1994, executives of the two Swiss companies wrote promising to pay ”commissions” totaling 9 percent to three offshore companies controlled by Mr. Zardari and Nusrat Bhutto. A Cotecna letter in June 1994 was direct: ”Should we receive, within six months of today, a contract for inspection and price verification of goods imported into Pakistan,” it read, ”we will pay you 6 percent of the total amount invoiced and paid to the Government of Pakistan for such a contract and during the whole duration of that contract and its renewal.”

Similar letters, dated March and June 1994, were sent by Societe Generale de Surveillance promising ”consultancy fees” of 6 percent and 3 percent to two other offshore companies controlled by the Bhutto family. According to Pakistani investigators, the two Swiss companies inspected more than $15.4 billion in imports into Pakistan from January 1995 to March 1997, making more than $131 million. The investigators estimated that the Bhutto family companies made $11.8 million from the deals, at least a third of which showed up in banking documents taken from the Swiss lawyer.

For Societe Generale de Surveillance, with 35,000 employees and more than $2 billion a year in earnings, the relationship with the Bhutto family has been painful. In addition to doing customs inspections, the company awards certificates of technical quality. In effect, its business is integrity.

In an interview in Geneva, Elisabeth Salina Amorini, president of Societe Generale, said the Pakistan contracts had been the subject of an internal company inquiry. But Ms. Salina Amorini, a 42-year-old lawyer, said the company had reorganized its government contracts division under a new executive and had sold Cotecna, acquired in 1994, back to the family that had previously owned it. The internal inquiry, she told reporters in Geneva last month, had shown ”a number of inadequacies which enabled certain irregularities to take place.”

Ms. Salina Amorini said in the interview that a study of Societe Generale’s dealings with Pakistan had uncovered a $650 million shortfall in customs revenues that the Bhutto Government was supposed to have collected over a 21-month period in 1995 and 1996. She said the company had reported the shortfall to Washington-based officials of the monetary fund and the World Bank, which monitor customs revenues to check Pakistan’s compliance with conditions set for emergency loans. The conditions are meant to help the country avoid default on its foreign debt.

Officials at the two financial institutions are investigating the Swiss company’s report to determine whether the customs system was corrupted at both ends — from commissions paid to Bhutto family companies on the preshipment inspection contracts and, later, in illicit payments by Pakistani importers seeking to avoid the customs duties that the Swiss companies had determined they owed.

The Gold Connection
Granting a License, Reaping a Profit
Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, stretching from Karachi to the border with Iran, has long been a gold smugglers’ haven. Until the beginning of Ms. Bhutto’s second term, the trade, running into hundreds of millions of dollars a year, was unregulated, with slivers of gold called biscuits, and larger weights in bullion, carried on planes and boats that travel between the Persian Gulf and the largely unguarded Pakistani coast.

Shortly after Ms. Bhutto returned as Prime Minister in 1993, a Pakistani bullion trader in Dubai, Abdul Razzak Yaqub, proposed a deal: in return for a license to import gold, Mr. Razzak would help the Government regularize the trade.

In January 1994, weeks after Ms. Bhutto began her second term, Mr. Schlegelmilch established a British Virgin Island company known as Capricorn Trading, S.A., with Mr. Zardari as its principal owner. Nine months later, on Oct. 5, 1994, an account was opened at the Dubai offices of Citibank in the name of Capricorn Trading. The same day, a Citibank deposit slip for the account shows a deposit of $5 million by Mr. Razzak’s company, ARY Traders. Two weeks later, another Citibank deposit slip showed that ARY had paid a further $5 million.

In November 1994, Pakistan’s Commerce Ministry wrote to Mr. Razzak informing him that he had been granted a license that made him, for at least the next two years, Pakistan’s sole authorized gold importer. In an interview in his office in Dubai, Mr. Razzak acknowedged that he had used the license to import more than $500 million in gold into Pakistan, and that he had traveled to Islamabad several times to meet with Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari. But he denied that there had been any secret deal. ”I have not paid a single cent to Zardari,” he said.

Mr. Razzak offered an unusual explanation for the Citibank documents that showed his company paying the $10 million to Mr. Zardari, suggesting that someone in Pakistan who wished to destroy his reputation had contrived to have his company wrongly identified as the depositor of the money. ”Somebody in the bank has cooperated with my enemies to make false documents,” he said.

The Documentation
Erasing the Proofs Of Secret Power
The Pakistani investigation of Ms. Bhutto’s two terms in office has tied a range of overseas properties to her husband and other family members. Among these are Rockwood, a 355-acre estate south of London, and a $2.5 million country manor in Normandy. The listed owners of the manor, which is known as the House of the White Queen, are Hakim and Zarrin Zardari.

Other properties that Pakistani investigators have linked to members of the Bhutto family include a string of luxury apartments in London. Pakistan has asked the United States Justice Department to investigate still more bank accounts and properties, including a country club and a polo ranch in Palm Beach County, Florida, said to be worth about $4 million, that were bought by associates of Mr. Zardari in the mid-1990’s.

The Pakistani request to Washington, made in December, also sought help in checking allegations that some of Mr. Zardari’s wealth may have come from Pakistani drug traffickers paying for protection. In the past decade, Pakistan and its neighbor Afghanistan have become the world’s largest source of heroin, shipping 250 tons of it every year to Europe and the United States.

The purchase of overseas properties by well-connected members of the elite in a developing country is hardly a new phenomenon. But the disclosures about Ms. Bhutto’s family have underscored a trend that international financial officials have long found troubling: the willingness of the monetary fund and the World Bank to prop up economies like Pakistan’s that have been bled dry by corruption.

A former high-ranking official of the World Bank in Islamabad who requested anonymity acknowledged that both institutions were all too willing to make additional loans on the vague promise that corruption would be reined in. ”We made a mantra out of the phrase ‘good governance,’ ” the official said, ”as though we intended to try and stamp the corruption out. But the truth is that we turned a blind eye.”

In the years Ms. Bhutto was in office, Pakistan received billions of dollars in new loans, mostly to enable it to pay interest on its debt. By 1996, interest on the accumulated public debt, including $32 billion in foreign loans, was absorbing nearly 70 percent of state revenues. With Pakistan’s defense costs absorbing the remaining 30 percent, scarcely anything was left for the social programs that Ms. Bhutto had promised.

While the Times inquiry confirmed some of the allegations made by the Pakistani investigators, other matters remained unresolved. For example, none of the documents for the foreign bank accounts or offshore companies uncovered thus far bear Ms. Bhutto’s name, nor do any of the letters promising payoffs make any mention of her.

The only document that refers to Ms. Bhutto is a handwritten ledger for an account at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Geneva. In Mr. Schlegelmilch’s handwriting, the ledger contains the notation ”50% AAZ 50 % BB.” This account showed deposits of $1.8 million for one 90-day period in 1994 and received at least $860,000 in payments by the two Swiss customs-inspection companies.

Some of Ms. Bhutto’s friends say she cannot fairly be held accountable for her husband’s questionable deals, since she was too busy as Prime Minister to know of them. Others say Ms. Bhutto, having lost her father and both of her brothers in tragic circumstances, became overdependent emotionally on Mr. Zardari.

Her younger brother, Shahnawaz, died of poisoning in Cannes, France, in 1985 after a dispute that Murtaza Bhutto, her older brother, linked to arguments over family assets stashed in Switzerland. Murtaza Bhutto was killed in September 1986 after a long-running power struggle with his sister and her husband. Mr. Zardari has been charged with masterminding the second murder, but he and Ms. Bhutto say he was framed.

Officials say Mr. Zardari made no attempt to disguise his activities from his wife, holding meetings on some of his deals in the Prime Minister’s residence, and invoking his wife’s authority when ordering officials to override regulations meant to prevent graft in the assignment of contracts.

Furthermore, several senior officials in Ms. Bhutto’s Governments said they had met with repeated rebuffs when they tried to warn her about Mr. Zardari. One senior minister said that when he had raised the issue, ”She said, ‘How dare you talk to me like that?’ and stalked out.”

Nor has Ms. Bhutto made any effort to distance herself from Mr. Zardari. In the Karachi interview, she said her husband’s deals had been made only for Pakistan’s benefit. ”He’s a very generous person,” she said. ”His weakness, and his strength, is that he’s always trying to help people.”

The tax returns filed by Ms. Bhutto and her husband in her years in office give no hint of the wealth uncovered by the Pakistani inquiry. Ms. Bhutto, Mr. Zardari and Nusrat Bhutto declared assets totaling $1.2 million in 1996 and never told authorities of any foreign accounts or properties, as required by law. Mr. Zardari declared no net assets at all in 1990, the year Ms. Bhutto’s first term ended, and only $402,000 in 1996.

The family’s income tax declarations were similarly modest. The highest income Ms. Bhutto declared was $42,200 in 1996, with $5,110 in tax. In two of her years as Prime Minister, 1993 and 1994, she paid no income tax at all. Mr. Zardari’s highest declared income was $13,100, also in 1996, when interest on bank deposits he controlled in Switzerland exceeded that much every week.

Pakistan’s inquiry is in its early phases, but it has already prompted international action. Swiss officials have frozen 17 bank accounts belonging to the Bhutto family, and authorities in Britain and France are searching for other accounts and properties.

Ms. Bhutto described the investigation as a persecution. At one point she attacked the Clinton Administration, saying it had ignored her plight while deploring the treatment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel laureate.

”This is the most horrendous human rights record, what is happening to me, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan,” Ms. Bhutto said. ”It is shocking to see that the Clinton Administration talks so much about Burma, when this is happening to a woman who leads the opposition here.” Tears welling in her eyes, she added, ”The Bhuttos have suffered so much for Pakistan.”
Correction: January 10, 1998, Saturday An article yesterday about corruption in Pakistan misstated the year that the brother of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed. It was 1996, not 1986.

Because of an editing error, the article also referred incompletely to Hakim and Zarrin Zardari, the owners of a manor house in Normandy. They are the parents of Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is the focus of a corruption inquiry.

Correction: January 23, 1998, Friday An article on Jan. 9 about the financial dealings of the family of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan referred incorrectly to the holder of a 1990 contract to provide preshipment verification of major imports for the Pakistani Government. The contract signed by Ms. Bhutto’s Government was with Cotecna, a Swiss concern, which later became an affiliate of Societe Generale de Surveillance, another Swiss company; S.G.S. was not the holder of the 1990 contract.

September 10, 2007

Arranged Marriage – A Modern Perspective on a Seemingly Archaic System

Posted in Commentary at 3:25 pm by Iram

This article, published by the New York Magazine, strongly reverberates with many of my current viewpoints regarding the system of arranged marriage that is so deeply rooted in South Asian culture. At an age where many of my friends, myself included, have begun to wonder who that special someone will be who will come and sweep them off their feet to live happily ever after, I can deeply appreciate the sentiments expressed herein by the writer. So, to all of those lovely ladies with whom I have spent evenings and nights discussing and dreaming about ‘HIM’, enjoy!

Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?

As with any singles Website geared toward one community, you also get your interlopers. A 44-year-old Jewish doctor managed to make my dad’s first cut: He was a doctor. Mark said he believed Indians and Jews shared similar values, like family and education. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with his search for an Indian wife. (Isn’t it when they dislike us for our skin color that we’re supposed to get upset?) But when I met him for dinner, he seemed a decade older than he was, which made me feel like I was a decade younger.

My father’s screening method is hardly foolproof. Once, he was particularly taken with a suitor who claimed to be a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins and friends with a famous Bollywood actress, Madhuri Dixit. I was suspicious, but I agreed to speak to the fellow. Within seconds, his shaky command of English and yokel line of questioning—“You are liking dancing? I am too much liking dancing”—told me this man was as much a brain surgeon as I was Madhuri Dixit. I refused to talk to him again, even though my father persisted in thinking I was bullheaded. “Don’t you think we would make sure his story checked out before marrying you off?” he said.

Sometimes, though, you get close, really close. A year ago, I was put in touch with a McKinsey consultant in Bombay whom I’ll call Sameer. I liked the fact that he was Indian-American but had returned to India to work. We had great conversations on the phone—among other things, he had interesting views on how people our age were becoming more sexually liberated in Indian cities—and I began envisioning myself kept in the finest silk saris. My father kept telling me he wanted it all “wrapped up” by February—it was only Christmas! Sameer had sent a picture, and while he wasn’t Shah Rukh Khan, he wasn’t bad.

Back for a break in New York, Sameer kindly came to see me in Brooklyn. We went to a French bistro, where he leaned over the table and said, “You know, your father really shouldn’t send out those photos of you. They don’t do justice to your beauty.” Sameer was generous, good-natured, engaging, seemingly besotted with me, on an expat salary—and also on the Atkins diet to lose 50 pounds. My Bombay dreams went up in smoke.

In this, I guess I am like every other woman in New York, complaining a man is too ambitious or not ambitious enough, too eager or not eager enough. But they are picky, too. These men, in their bid to fit in on Wall Street or on the golf course, would like a wife who is eminently presentable—to their boss, friends, and family. They would like a woman to be sophisticated enough to have a martini, and not a Diet Coke, at an office party, but, God forbid, not “sophisticated” enough to have three. Sometimes I worry that I’m a bit too sophisticated for most Indian men.

That’s not to say I haven’t come to appreciate what Indian men have to offer, which is a type of seriousness, a clarity of intent. I’ve never heard from an Indian man the New York beg-off phrase “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. I have a lot of things going on in my life.”

Indian men also seem to share my belief that Westerners have made the progression toward marriage unnecessarily agonizing. Neal, a 35-year-old Indian lawyer I know, thinks it’s absurd how a couple in America can date for years and still not know if they want to get married. “I think I would only need a couple of months to get to know a girl before I married her,” he says.

In more traditional arranged marriages—which are still very much alive and well in India—couples may get only one or two meetings before their wedding day. In America, and in big Indian cities, a couple may get a few months before they are expected to walk down the aisle, or around the fire, as they do seven times, in keeping with Hindu custom. By now I certainly think that would be enough time for me.

Other Indian women I know seem to be coming to the same conclusion. My friend Divya works the overnight shift at the BBC in London and stays out clubbing on her nights off. Imagine my surprise when I discovered she was on keralamatrimony.com, courtesy of her mother, who took the liberty of listing Divya’s hobbies as shopping and movies. (I was under the impression her hobbies were more along the lines of trance music and international politics.) Though she’s long favored pubgoing blokes, Divya, like me, doesn’t discount the possibility that the urologist from Trivandrum or the IT guy could just be the one—an idea patently unthinkable to us in our twenties.

It’s become second nature for women like us to straddle the two dating worlds. When I go out on a first date with an Indian man, I find myself saying things I would never utter to an American. Like, “I would expect my husband to fully share domestic chores.” Undeniably, there’s a lack of mystery to Indian-style dating, because both parties are fully aware of what the endgame should be. But with that also comes a certain relief.

With other forms of dating the options seem limitless. The long kiss in the bar with someone I’ve never met before could have been just that, an exchange that has a value and meaning of its own that can’t be quantified. Ditto for the one-night stand. (Try explaining that one to my parents.) The not-knowing-where-something-is-headed can be wildly exciting. It can also be a tad soul-crushing. Just ask any single woman in New York.

Indians of my mother’s generation—in fact, my mother herself—like to say of arranged marriage, “It’s not that there isn’t love. It’s just that it comes after the marriage.” I’m still not sure I buy it. But after a decade of Juan Carloses and short-lived affairs with married men and Craigslist flirtations and emotionally bankrupt boyfriends and, oddly, the most painful of all, the guys who just never call, it no longer seems like the most outlandish possibility.

Some of my single friends in New York say they’re still not convinced marriage is what they really want. I’m not sure I buy that, either. And no modern woman wants to close the door on any of her options—no matter how traditional—too hastily.

My friend Radhika, an unmarried 37-year-old photographer, used to hate going to her cousins’ weddings, where the aunties never asked her about the famines in Africa or the political conflict in Cambodia she’d covered. Instead it was, “Why aren’t you married? What are your intentions?” As much as she dreaded this, they’ve stopped asking, and for Radhika, that’s even worse. “It’s like they’ve written me off,” she says.

On a recent trip to India, I was made to eat dinner at the children’s table—they sent out for Domino’s pizza and Pepsis—because as an unmarried woman, I didn’t quite fit in with the adults. As much as I resented my exile, I realized that maybe I didn’t want to be eating vegetable curry and drinking rum with the grown-ups. Maybe that would have meant they’d given up on me, that they’d stopped viewing me as a not-yet-married girl but as an unmarriageable woman who’d ruined her youth by being too choosy and strong-headed.

This way, the aunties can still swing by the kids’ table as I’m sucking on a Pepsi and chucking a young cousin on the chin, and ask me, “When are you getting married? What are your intentions?” And I can say, “Auntie, do you have a boy in mind?”

August 21, 2007

(Kind of) Political Commentary

Posted in Commentary at 3:52 am by Iram

I have been struck once again by a lapse in productivity, and my personal muse is begging me to release some of the mental writing that I sporadically compose without any form of audience or springboard. Nothing incredibly creative comes to mind though, and I find myself focusing on some of the more disturbing events I have been following in recent news, both local and international. Thus, I shall spend a few moments declaring my personal thoughts on some of the more prevalent issues, in no particular order.

1.Iraqi Women Forced into Prostitution
CNN published an interesting piece a few days ago regarding Iraqi women who are being forced by poverty and starvation to sell their bodies as their only means of providing a household income by which they can feed their children. There are probably many opposing views out there when it comes to what can be considered ‘forced.’ I have already heard some individuals argue that even though these women may have been provoked to take such extreme steps they are, in the end, acting of their own free will and thus cannot be considered forced in any way. On the other hand, many of these women were originally forced or coerced into performing sexual acts against their own free will, and after that initial incident have felt that sex-work is the only type of work of which they are worthy. Whatever your views on this issue, I think that everybody would be hard pressed to argue the fact that this war has simply taken too many lives. Too many innocents are being affected by the ongoing dispute in Iraq (and let’s not forget Afghanistan): widows, orphans, parents who have lost their children, civilians who are now unemployed and unfed. Unfortunately, all of these categories apply not only to the countries that hold the battlefields but also to our own great nation. There is no end in site, and nobody has been able to provide a feasible strategy by which guns can be lain aside and diplomatic reasoning can preside. I am personally familiar with many of the problems that will prevent countries such as these from establishing democratic states that meet the criterion of the United States, and I can only hope and pray that there is enough tolerance and understanding on both sides of the bargaining table when the time comes so that this series of unfortunate incidents can end in a peaceful negotiation, and soon.

2. Access to Healthcare in America
Healthcare has been a headlining topic over the past few months, from Michael Moore’s notoriously illegal stint in Cuba while filming his documentary ‘Sicko,’ to the raising of the issue in recent political debates for the upcoming presidential elections, to a recent news article detailing the plight of an elderly man who killed his wife because his pension and social security payments could no longer cover her increasingly costly healthcare expenses. As a future physician, healthcare is an issue that is very close to my heart, and one that I have studied exuberantly through various medically-focused sociology and economics courses. I am very proud of the fact that in the US those individuals who have sufficient resources have access to the best and most innovative medical treatment available across the globe. Our system of internal competition in addition to rewards for creativity and ingenuity have allowed research and development in both the basic and clinical sciences to flourish, creating a foundation for experimental medicine and ongoing discovery of new treatments and approaches to diagnoses. At the same time, however, the fact that most healthcare is in the hands of private companies has raised prices exorbitantly as these entities understandably function as big businesses that care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. The worst part of this situation is that it is hurting those who are already less fortunate; the people teetering at the edge of the poverty line are in double jeopardy, because not only can they not afford healthcare but they also constitute the population that is most at risk for many of the health problems pervading common society today.

We are currently sitting at a very interesting cross-roads, where we can choose to pull healthcare under the wing of the public sector and make it more affordable – but in the process inevitably lose much of the incentive for growth in the field – or we can choose to ‘subsidize’ the private sector in order to defray some of the costs from the consumer. I personally believe that the latter is the better choice for this nation. Providing universal free health care like many of the European Countries and our Northern neighbor introduces too many problems to an already troubled system, including the economic issue of Moral Hazard, the question of how our already overburdened and disorganized public management system will be able to handle such a drastic addition to its priority list, and the ever-important issue of who will pay for the inclusion. On the other hand, if the government were to create its own insurance company that could in a sense compete with the existing private insurance companies, the bulk buying power would allow the governmental institution to negotiate with healthcare providers and lower the price of healthcare paid by consumers, while in addition inducing the downstream affect of lowering insurance premiums and incidental costs incurred by those who elect to maintain coverage by private companies. I envision this as being structurally similar to the way that the U.S. Postal Service competes with UPS and FedEX. This way, the private companies still exist, and they maintain their ability to generate profits as long as they maintain the desire and the drive to develop innovative methods of management and structure that would allow them to cut costs and remain competitive with the governmental agency (I believe I read somewhere that more than half of the check you hand to your doctor funds bureaucracy and red-tape). As long as the private companies, which will always function as private independent businesses, exist, there will always be incentive for growth in the healthcare field that will keep our R&D department at the top of the world.

I originally started with a list of 5 issues that I planned to discuss in this post, but I have already dedicated numerous keyboard strokes to these first two issues and it is time for me to return back to my neuroanatomy atlas. Perhaps at the next bout of cerebral exhaustion I can give my right brain a bit more exercise.

February 5, 2007

Naseeb dot com

Posted in Commentary at 11:09 pm by Iram

As the cyber world is growing, so is the number of portals designed with the specific purpose of networking in mind. Everybody has heard of Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster, and now there’s another one to add to the list: Naseeb. Though not new, Naseeb was very recently introduced to me by a friend who has managed to make some very close friends using only her high speed cable modem. Intrigued, I signed on and spent a few hours in front of the computer hoping to recover from a bout of boredom that was preventing me from engaging in my other favorite pasttime – studying. Well, I think entertained would be a severe understatement for what I felt while I chatted with random people on Naseeb via the network’s instant “Nassenger”. Aimed largely at the growing young Muslim population, Naseeb seems to have become a hideout for Muslim women seeking men and Muslim men seeking women – a glorified matchmaking site. And while it does a fairly decent job of bringing the community together, I was definitely brought up close and personal with some members of the community with whom I hope to never have any interaction again. On the positive side, though, I have electronically managed to “meet” (if you can call it that) a few individuals that I know for a fact would have become very close friends of mine had I met them in person. In this case, though, only time will be able to tell if the same outcome is reached via the Naseeb platform.

The case of Naseeb has brought up some very relevant questions in my head, though. As people grow more and more connected via the internet and other electronic sources, it appears that these very same people are losing their innate ability to communicate in person. I know countless individuals who are very eloquent in writing, but are completely unable to communicate their thoughts clearly when speaking with somebody in person. Is this a consequence of electronic communication? Are we becoming so dependent on the internet to meet and communicate with new people and old friends that we can no longer perform the same functions verbally? I know I see this trend in myself sometimes – I often find myself choosing to email or text message something rather than just picking up the phone and dialing a number. It is a scary thought, especially as I continue through medical school and hear no less than ten times a day that one of our most important strengths as future doctors will be our ability to communicate effectively and sensitively with our patients. While there are times that textual communication is more efficient than verbal there must be a limit to how much of our lives are spent typing instead of speaking, or the next thing you know people will be walking around with keyboards attached to their hands typing messages via bluetooth to people as they pass by them on the streets (yes, I know this is likely an exaggeration, but I can still visualize the mental image). My two cents…