Benazir Bhutto’s untested son takes up his Pakistani destiny

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is now the chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party, which was founded by his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. (AFP)
Updated 13 December 2017
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Benazir Bhutto’s untested son takes up his Pakistani destiny

KARACHI: A decade after Pakistan’s first female leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, her son Bilawal is striving to reclaim his mother’s mantle, the latest act in a Shakespearean saga of tragedy and power.
But reviving the wilted fortunes of his family’s political dynasty ahead of a general election due next year will be a tough ask for the Oxford-educated scion, who at 29 years old has never held political office.
His family once dominated Pakistani politics.
Grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and ascended to the highest civil office in the land, followed by Benazir, who became prime minister twice and was running a third time when she was killed in a gun and bomb attack on December 27, 2007.
Since her death the PPP has seen its fortunes plunge, and few are willing to bet on Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, now the party’s chairman, shepherding it back to glory.
But there are flickers of life.
When Bilawal took the stage at the PPP’s golden jubilee celebrations in Islamabad last week, surprised observers put the crowd at around 25,000, higher than recent rival gatherings.
Much like his charismatic mother, Bilawal was forthright at the lectern, confronting militants infesting Pakistan and the powerful military alike.
“We have to continue our progressive struggle and defeat the conspiracies of dictatorship,” he thundered as the crowd roared.
But away from the podium he cuts a shyer persona.
“My mother often said that she didn’t choose this life, it chose her,” he tells AFP at his family home in Karachi. “The same applies to me.”
Bilawal’s grandfather Zulfikar forged the PPP in southern Sindh province 50 years ago, his slogan of “roti, kapra, makkan” (“bread, clothing, shelter“) turning the party founded by a feudal landlord into Pakistan’s first populist force.
“He gave every Pakistani a sense of pride,” beams Bilawal.
But Zulfikar was deposed by General Zia-al-Haq in a coup and hanged in 1979 despite an international outcry.
Benazir, as her son would be decades later, was thrust into the spotlight. Following Zia’s death in 1988, she was elected prime minister at the age of 35.
Her government was undercut by military interference and allegations of corruption, however, and despite becoming prime minister twice she never completed a term.
Ousted in 1996, she spent most of the military dictatorship years of Pervez Musharraf in self-exile, returning in 2007 to contest another election.
But hopes sparked by her return were shattered by her assassination weeks later.
Her murder was pinned on jihadists, with a UN investigation accusing Musharraf of failing to provide sufficient security.
“It was a bitter blow for those who had hoped for a different Pakistan,” says Ayesha Jalal, of the center for South Asian studies at Tufts University.
That includes the Bhuttos.
“If they stopped assassinating us then my mother would be in the foreign office and I would still be a student,” says Bilawal.
Bilawal was named PPP chairman after his mother’s death but, still just a student, he returned to Oxford.
His father Asif Ali Zardari — nicknamed “Mr 10 Percent” over the many graft claims against him — took control as the party swept the 2008 elections, presiding over its years of decay, fueled by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
Questions linger over Bilawal’s ability to lead the PPP if power still ultimately rests with Zardari.
Bilawal argues his youth is an asset: “I have time on my side.”
Reports suggest he plans to contest his mother’s old seat in Sindh. He dismisses concerns over his own security, saying: “We don’t give in to fear.”
But observers note the protection surrounding Bilawal, his elite status and time abroad could be sequestering him from voters.
His task is a lonely one, the bachelor admits. “If I was to say I had a life, that would be a lie,” he tells AFP. “Netflix is a lifesaver.”
Analysts say he faces an uphill battle in 2018, with cricketer-turned-opposition stalwart Imran Khan on the ascent and the ruling party of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif clawing at support.
Some Pakistanis want more than just another scion.
“Under the dynastic politics, democracy has been laid to rest,” said Karachi resident Sardar Zulfiqar.
But attendees at the golden jubilee have faith, clinging to the PPP’s progressiveness as Pakistan remains locked in a tug-of-war between Islamist extremism and democratic moderates.
Asma Gillani, 52, has supported the party since she first listened to Zulfikar on the radio as a child, right up to the moment she lost hearing in one ear as she was hit by the blast wave in the attack that killed Benazir.
As Benazir’s young son takes the stage she remarks: “God willing he will lead this country.”


New sex abuse allegations levied against prominent cardinal

In this Sept. 23, 2015 file photo, Pope Francis reaches out to hug Cardinal Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick after the Midday Prayer of the Divine with more than 300 US Bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (AP)
Updated 54 min 1 sec ago
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New sex abuse allegations levied against prominent cardinal

  • The church announced June 20 that allegations were found to be credible
  • McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001-2006 and archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, for 15 years before that

RICHMOND, Virginia: A Virginia man said Friday he was sexually abused for about two decades by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a prominent Roman Catholic leader who was removed from public ministry last month over separate child abuse allegations.
The man, who agreed to be identified only by his first name, James, told The Associated Press he recently filed a police report detailing the abuse with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. James, who first spoke publicly with The New York Times for a story published Thursday, said the abuse began when he was a child and continued into adulthood.
McCarrick was a close family friend, James said. The 88-year-old retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., is one of the highest-ranking US church officials accused in a sexual abuse scandal that has seen thousands of priests implicated.
“I was the first guy he baptized,” James said. “I was his little boy. I was his special kid. I was the kid he always sought out.”
McCarrick, who did not immediately respond to an interview request from AP, has denied the abuse allegations that led to his removal last month by Pope Francis. The church announced June 20 that allegations were found to be “credible” that McCarrick fondled an altar boy in New York more than 40 years ago.
In a statement issued at the time of his removal, McCarrick said, “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people.”
Asked Friday about James’ statements, a longtime friend of McCarrick’s who didn’t want to be identified because she doesn’t officially serve as his spokeswoman said he hadn’t received formal notice of any new allegation but would follow the civil and church processes in place to investigate them.
James said he struggled for decades with immense shame and guilt over the abuse, which he said had started by at least age 11 and extended for about two decades into his 30s. He said the abuse included McCarrick exposing himself, forcing him to sleep in the same bed and touching him inappropriately.
He said he struggled with alcoholism, which broke up his marriage, and attempted suicide multiple times. He’s been sober since he was 33, he said.
James recounted confronting McCarrick as an adult, telling him he was going to go public with his allegations.
“You can’t do that,” James says McCarrick told him. “No one’s going to believe you. You’re a drunk. You’re an idiot. ... Do you know how important I am?“
James said he included in his police report the incidents he considers most “disgusting,” which he says took place in several different states.
James’ attorney, Patrick Noaker, provided AP with a document from the sheriff’s office confirming that a police report had been taken. A spokesman for the department declined to release a full copy of the report.
Noaker said he was told the report would be passed on to the jurisdictions where James says the crimes occurred. He said he expects the statute of limitations may have run out in some states but is hopeful that prosecutors in California may be able to pursue charges. That’s because statutes of limitation run differently when someone enters a state, commits a crime and then leaves, as James alleges McCarrick did in California, Noaker said.
James said he hoped to see McCarrick prosecuted and would like a public apology. But he also said he hoped his coming forward would make other victims of sex abuse feel less alone.
“I’ve never felt this good in a long, long time,” he said.
The Associated Press does not identify people who say they’re victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission. James asked to be identified only by his first name to protect the privacy of family members.
McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001-2006 and archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, for 15 years before that. As Washington archbishop, McCarrick was a major power broker in Vatican-US relations during the final years of the pontificate of St. John Paul II and the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy.
His ties to Washington’s political elites proved crucial when Pope Francis tasked him with the delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations that helped lead to the 2014 US-Cuba thaw.
McCarrick was also well-known in Rome, serving on a host of Vatican congregations before he retired, including the Pontifical Council for Latin America. That post would have brought him in contact with Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, who was made a cardinal in the same 2001 consistory as McCarrick.
In 2002, he led a delegation of US churchmen to Rome, at the height of the American sex abuse scandal, and vowed to pursue a “one strike and you’re out” policy that later became the US Catholic bishops’ norms for fighting abuse.
Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said in an emailed statement that the archdiocese takes all allegations of abuse seriously and is committed to following its long-standing child protection policy.
She declined to make further comment on James’ allegations, “as this claim did not occur in the Archdiocese of Washington.”