Swiss Reluctantly Release Millions in Frozen Funds to Bhutto's Widower

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A Swiss judge who investigated Asif Ali Zardari, a leading Pakistani politician and the widower of Benazir Bhutto, for alleged money laundering, said Thursday he is disappointed the case has been dropped.

Geneva authorities announced earlier this week that they will stop their probe against Zardari and unblock some $60 million frozen in Swiss bank accounts at the request of Pakistani authorities.

Daniel Devaud, the Swiss magistrate who brought the money laundering charges in 1998 against Zardari and Bhutto, then Pakistan's prime minister, said the investigation should have continued, even if Pakistan was no longer interested in pursuing the case.

Zardari, who now leads one of Pakistan's largest political parties, is widely expected to succeed Pervez Musharraf as president when the country's lawmakers vote Sept. 6.

Geneva prosecutor Daniel Zappelli announced Monday that he was dropping the investigation because authorities in Pakistan — where the probe began — were no longer pursuing the case, which they regarded as unneeded and politically motivated.

Zappelli said Thursday that Geneva authorities also will comply with a separate request from Pakistani officials to unblock the US$60 million in assets that have been frozen in Swiss bank accounts since the 1990s.

The accounts were not part of the Swiss money laundering investigation against Bhutto and Zardari, Zappelli said. He declined to identify the owner of the funds, citing privacy rules. But Hassan Habib, a consular official at the Pakistani Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, said his country's government was not the beneficiary of the funds.

Whether the account belonged to "the late prime minister Bhutto, or her husband, or it was a joint account, I am not sure," Habib said.

In an interview Thursday, Devaud disputed Zappelli's legal argument for dropping the case.

"The money laundering probe in Switzerland could have been continued," Devaud said. "Politely put, it is hard to say there was nothing in the files to indicate corruption."

Devaud, whose investigation took five years, found Zardari and Bhutto guilty in absentia in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars. The verdict was appealed and the investigation reopened after new evidence emerged to challenge earlier findings.

Zappelli said Monday there were no grounds for Switzerland to pursue the case against Zardari since authorities in Pakistan ruled the original charges against him were politically motivated. No further evidence was uncovered by Swiss authorities to warrant an independent money laundering investigation, he added in his interview with The Associated Press Thursday.

"There is nothing to prove," Zappelli said. "The file we have does not contradict the final position of the general prosecutor of Pakistan."

Pakistani judicial officials withdrew their request for judicial assistance from Switzerland after then-President Musharraf issued a controversial order last year that largely quashed corruption charges against Bhutto and Zardari.

Zardari, who took charge of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party after she was slain on Dec. 27, has since emerged as the front-runner to become the nation's president.