Pakistan's "Oddfather"?

For decades, the late Vincent "the Chin" Gigante was renowned for his methodical efforts to convince the world that he was crazy. Or, if not the world, at least the judges before whom prosecutors sought to convict the well-known crime boss on charges ranging from bribery and racketeering to conspiracy to commit murder. Gigante went to painstaking lengths to convey the appearance that he was mentally ill and therefore incompetent to stand trial, wandering around Greenwich Village in his bathrobe and slippers while either muttering to or having boisterous arguments with himself. (And on occasion, for good measure, scooping up cigarette butts off the sidewalks and trying to smoke them.) While the so-called "oddfather" never received the Oscar that he so richly deserved, he did manage to avoid facing trial for many years before finally being tried and convicted by a jury in connection with a conspiracy to murder a former associate in 1997. Gigante ultimately was forced to admit in 2003 that his decades-long performance was indeed a ruse, and he accordingly pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Along the way, dozens of prominent experts offered confident diagnoses asserting that Gigante was in fact mentally ill.

Today, many Pakistanis are wondering whether they have an "oddfather" of their very own, in the person of Pakistan People's Party co-chairperson Asif Zardari, the artist formerly known as "Mr. Ten Percent" and the widower of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto:

[C]ourt documents filed by Mr Zardari's doctors suggest he had been diagnosed as suffering from a series of serious conditions including severe depression, dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder. He had even experienced suicidal thoughts.... The details of Mr Zardari's mental health examination, revealed yesterday by the Financial Times, were presented to a court in London to support an application to delay a now-defunct corruption case that was being brought against him by the Pakistan government. His lawyers presumably were looking for reasons to persuade the court to postpone the hearing - something they were successful in achieving. [link] ** Zardari could remember neither the birthdays of his wife and children, nor more than a handful of facts from two short stories he was read. "He had difficulty focusing, concentrating and paying attention, is persistently sad, chronically anxious and apprehensive. He stated that he has had suicidal thoughts, but has not made any suicide gestures," Mr. Reich wrote. Another March 2007 diagnosis - by Philip Saltiel, a New York City-based psychiatrist - said emotional and neurological problems suffered by Mr Zardari because of medical treatment and imprisonment had resulted in "emotional instability" and "deficits in memory and concentration". Mr Saltiel wrote: "I do not foresee any improvement in these issues for at least a year." [link]

Almost a year and a half later, the revelations about Zardari's court filings place him in a bit of a quandry. On the one hand, as with Gigante before him, the opinions offered by Zardari's experts may have helped fend off some of the many court cases around the world charging him with corruption and fraud. On the other hand, in the aftermath of Pervez Musharraf's resignation, Zardari now wants to become president of Pakistan himself, and is the presumptive nominee for that office of his party and, apparently, of the Bush administration, which has rather clumsily dropped whatever pretense of neutrality it had left. Of course, one might readily believe that having a touch of the crazy is a time-honored prerequisite to holding high political office. However, the Pakistan Constitution does not permit an individual to become president if he or she has been "declared by a competent court to be of unsound mind," and authorizes removal of the president on the ground of "mental incapacity." Even in the absence of any formal court order declaring him of "unsound mind," therefore, Zardari may have placed himself in the somewhat awkward position of having rendered himself potentially removable -- through his very own defense strategy -- from the moment he is sworn into office.

Zardari's associates claim that he's not crazy, he was just a little unwell. (I know, back then you couldn't tell.) After all, they note, Zardari languished in prison for many years, claims to have been tortured, and even feared being killed while in custody. Under such circumstances, says Zardari friend Wajid Shamsul Hasan, "[a]ny human being" would have suffered. Zardari's true condition is, of course, difficult for any outsider to assess. And certainly one can and should have sympathy for the possibility that he could have suffered mightily if subjected to torture and inhuman treatment while in prison, as he has claimed. Nevertheless, Zardari's associates seem to be suggesting that during the past year -- in which he has endured not only the trauma of his wife's tragic assassination, but also the stress of being unexpectedly thrust into a high stakes leadership position -- his earlier afflictions not only have not been exacerbated, but in fact have gone away altogether. He has now fully recovered, they say, and is "fit as a fiddle."

Whatever the actual state of Zardari's mental health, Pakistan's lawyers and judges must continue to find themselves perplexed by Zardari's behavior since Pakistan held elections back in February. More than six months after the Pakistani electorate decisively repudiated Musharraf and made clear its desire to see the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the other judges ousted by Musharraf, Zardari's government has yet to make any meaningful effort to reinstate those judges or roll back the other constitutional changes that Musharraf imposed by decree during the Emergency. Zardari has broken one promise after another about the judges to his coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif, leading Sharif to temporarily pull his Pakistan Muslim League ministers out of the cabinet back in May and, more decisively, to pull his party out of the government altogether earlier this week. Zardari has openly acknowledged reneging on his deals with Sharif about the judges, the most recent being a written agreement to reinstate all of the ousted judges within 24 hours after Musharraf's impeachment or resignation. Zardari has justified breaking his word by asserting that his agreements with Sharif are "not holy like the holy Quran and the Hadith," but rather can be modified as convenient. Somewhat inconveniently, however, with his latest agreement Zardari also reportedly told Sharif, "Let's take an oath on the Koran this time that I will fulfill all my promises."

And the mixed messages continue. Last week, Zardari told Newsweek that he "personally [is] in favor of the chief justice, but there is a position in the party, which says that he has become too politicized in the last many months and he has been leading rallies." This week, by contrast, Zardari cryptically said that "perhaps [he] cannot reveal the whole truth to the nation" about why he has been unwilling to move forward with the reinstatement of all of the ousted judges. Zardari also was reported to have suggested that a coalition partner, the Awami National Party, supported him in opposing restoration of all of the ousted judges, but later was forced to "clarify" that statement through a party spokesperson after the ANP protested to the contrary that they have consistently supported restoration of all of the ousted judges.

In the aftermath of the February elections, Zardari was hailed by many as a statesman for his role in building a broad coalition aimed at national reconciliation -- and for being able to do so only weeks after mourning his wife's death. With respect to the judiciary, however, more recent reviews of Zardari's performance have been decidedly less favorable. Reports have consistently indicated that the principal source of Zardari's reluctance to permit reinstatement of all of the judges ousted by Musharraf -- and his reluctance, in particular, to see the Chief Justice return to office -- is a fear that independent judges might permit the corruption charges against him to go forward. (Pressure from the Bush administration not to restore the judges could well be another factor.) However, Zardari's own experience suggests that perhaps he has nothing to fear from an independent judiciary at all. Maybe he simply needs to press his legal and medical experts back into service, and to invest in a nice bathrobe and a comfortable pair of slippers.

Posted by Anil Kalhan