Zardari set to get 3 million pounds richer from sale proceeds of Surrey Palace

September 22nd, 2008 - 3:24 pm ICT by ANI  

Benazir Bhutto

London, Sept 22 (ANI): Only a few legal formalities are left after which newly-elected Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari would pocket nearly three million pounds from the Pakistani exchequer, the sale proceeds of Surrey Palace the Rockwood House - which was sold through a liquidator in 2004 after Zardari and his slain spouse Benazir Bhutto were found guilty of corruption.

The total worth of the mansion today is estimated to be around 8.5 million pounds.

That sum (three million pounds) will add the fortune of Zardari, who had only last month received 32 million pounds in frozen assets released to him by the Swiss authorities, after Geneva prosecutors dropped the money-laundering investigation against Zardari at the request of the PPP-led alliance government.

For more than 10 years, the mansion has been the symbol of corruption charges being leveled against Zardari and his wife Benazir.

Spread over an area of 335 acres, the Palace was bought opaquely by the Bhutto-Zardari family in 1995 for 2.5 million pounds during Bhutto’’s second term as prime minister. The sale, handled by the Bhuttos” Swiss lawyer, Jens Schlegelmilch, was particularly opaque. The money came from the Geneva bank accounts of shell companies registered offshore in Panama and the British Virgin Islands .

The purchasers were three Isle of Man firms owned by two local trusts which in turn were controlled by a foundation in Liechtenstein . Suspicions about the true owners surfaced in 1996 with claims that the Bhuttos could have got the estate from the proceeds of corruption. It was one of the allegations that led to Bhutto being sacked as prime minister and to Zardari being jailed on charges of corruption and complicity in the murder of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, his wife’’s brother.

A year later evidence of the Bhuttos” labyrinthine financial dealings came to light in documents from Schlegelmilch’’s Geneva office, which were sold to the government for a reported PS1m.

In 1998, the new Nawaz Sharif government got a freezing injunction in the Isle of Man and in 2002 the companies went into voluntary liquidation. Two years later, the English liquidator sold the estate to the current owner, a local businessman, for 4.3 million pounds.

Pakistan started lengthy, expensive civil proceedings to reclaim what it argued was stolen state money but for eight years Zardari and Bhutto denied they owned Rockwood House - despite the well-publicised arrival of crates of luxurious artefacts, including a stuffed Bengal tiger, from the Bhuttos” home in Karachi. Workers engaged on elaborate renovations at the property claimed Zardari told them he also wanted a stud farm and polo centre.

It was only in 2004, when Zardari was freed from jail without trial, that his lawyers admitted, in an Isle of Man court, that he was the beneficial owner.

The case went to the high court in London and in 2006 Justice Collins declared there was a “reasonable prospect” of Pakistan establishing that Bhutto or her husband, or the pair together, bought and refurbished Rockwood with “the fruits of corruption”.

The case then did not progress, largely because of Zardari’’s claims of ill health, issued from his home on New York ‘’s Upper East Side . Medical reports to the court between June 2005 and September last year declare that Zardari suffered from severe mental health problems, including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. (ANI)

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