January 9, 1998

An Opulent Estate, Quietly Bought in England's Countryside

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    BROOK, England -- When Asif Zardari arrived in this quiet English village as the new owner of the sprawling Rockwood estate, he was so taken with the village pub, the Dog and Pheasant, that he told the pub owner he wanted to buy it.

    At the time, October 1995, Zardari was in an expansive mood. Lawyers working for him had just arranged the $4 million purchase of Rockwood, with its 355 acres of rolling Surrey countryside. He had ordered a complete renovation of the 1930s mansion, with a budget of $1.5 million. And he had engaged an English couple with experience as horsebreeders to turn Rockwood into a "stud farm," to raise thoroughbreds and indulge his passion for polo.

    When Zardari was told the pub was not for sale, villagers said, he ordered a replica of the bar built in the basement at Rockwood, to go with the mansion's nine bedrooms, its indoor swimming pool, its 15 acres of gardens, and the helicopter landing pad built after Zardari bought the estate from a Hong Kong Chinese tycoon. According to villagers, Zardari chose the property after touring southern England by helicopter with real estate agents.

    Although Zardari made his presence in the village known, nobody in Brook seems to have any certain recollection of having seen Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's wife, who was Pakistan's prime minister at the time of the Rockwood purchase. Pakistani investigators say that in the Rockwood deal, as in the case of at least a dozen other overseas properties they have linked to the Bhutto family, elaborate steps were taken to disguise the identity of the estate's new owners.

    From a search of property records, investigators learned that the estate was bought in three parcels -- the house and its gardens, with 104 acres of land; and two adjacent farms with another 220 acres of pasture -- by three separate offshore companies based in the Isle of Man, a British-ruled tax haven in the Irish Sea.

    A key role in the purchases seems to have been played by Richard Howard, a little-known London lawyer who has been identified by Pakistani investigators as having extensive links to business interests of the Bhutto family and their associates in Britain.

    When a British newspaper, The Sunday Express, published an article saying the couple had bought the estate in June 1996, Bhutto and Zardari issued statements saying they knew nothing about Rockwood, and, in Bhutto's case, that she had never been to Surrey. Zardari added a touch of outraged social conscience. "How can anyone think of buying a mansion in England when people in Pakistan don't even have a roof over their heads?" he asked rhetorically.

    But in an interview in the Karachi prison where he is being held on charges of murdering Bhutto's brother, Zardari seemed resigned to acknowledging his ownership of the estate. Friends of Zardari said this could be because Rockwood seems less important to Bhutto's husband now that he faces the possibility of a death sentence for his alleged role in planning the police ambush in which Murtaza Bhutto, his 42-year-old brother-in-law, was gunned down outside Murtaza Bhutto's Karachi home on Sept. 20, 1996.

    Zardari said Rockwood was less valuable than the two apartments on Park Lane, one of London's ritziest neighborhoods, which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto's arch-rival and successor as Pakistan's leader, used on his return to Pakistan after a recent trip to the United States. Noting that Sharif has not denied owning the apartments, Zardari made a mock offer of a trade. "Those Park Lane flats are worth more than Rockwood twice over," he said.

    Considering the care Zardari took to avoid being identified as Rockwood's owner on the estate's title deeds, the arrangements he made for furnishing the mansion seem, in retrospect, to have invited discovery.

    A woman who specializes in making reproduction antique furniture in the Pakistani city of Lahore, Saroosh Yaqub, told investigators she had fashioned 83 pieces of furniture for Rockwood, and shipped them in 11 crates to Pakistan's diplomatic mission in London in May 1996. Ms. Yaqub said she had been told the furniture was for Zardari, but to say nothing about it. "I was hushed up" she told investigators in a videotaped interview.

    In April 1996, another eight crates of household furnishings were sent to Rockwood from Bilawal House, Bhutto's Karachi home, containing antique guns, swords, carpets and paintings. Ms. Yaqub, the furniture maker, said that two British interior decorators who visited her in Lahore told her that Zardari had set a budget of 1 million pounds, about $1.5 million at the time, for renovating and furnishing Rockwood, and that one of his purchases included a cut-crystal dining table from Italy.

    Robert Ransome, a farmer who grazes cattle on the Rockwood lands, said in a telephone interview that he cut grass and laid out a polo ground that Zardari and polo-playing friends used for two games in the summer of 1996. By that time, Ransome said, Zardari had already installed Argentine grooms at Rockwood to look after polo ponies that were housed in temporary stables on the grounds. Plans for the stud farm apparently were abandoned after Zardari's ownership of the property became public knowledge in Britain.

    In a separate interview at her Karachi home, Bhutto said she knew nothing about the Rockwood purchase and suggested that Zardari might have bought the estate for "some other woman." The explanation first surfaced among Bhutto's loyalists in the weeks after the Sunday Express article appeared, but Pakistani investigators believe that this may only have been a ruse.

    Pakistani officials noted that a British reporter who got into Rockwood in 1996 said she had seen photo albums showing Bhutto with Zardari and the couple's three small children -- an unusual decoration for a house intended for another woman. But Bhutto was adamant that she had nothing to do with the purchase.

    "I don't know whether my husband had an affair or not," Bhutto said, referring to Zardari. She has continued to see her husband in prison and to demand his release. In fact, she visited him only hours before the interview. "He tells me he didn't. I don't know if he bought Rockwood, or did not." She paused, tears in her eyes, and added, "But I think it's absolutely cruel to take people's personal lives and turn them into methods of psychological warfare against a female political opponent."

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