LONDON, Aug 26: Asif Ali Zardari, the leading contender for the presidency of Pakistan, was suffering from severe psychiatric problems as recently as last year, a report in the Financial Times said on Monday quoting court documents filed by his doctors.

Mr Zardari was diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in a series of medical reports spanning more than two years, the report (Doubts cast on Zardari’s mental health) said.

Mr Zardari spent 11 of the past 20 years in Pakistani prisons fighting corruption allegations, during which he claims to have been tortured.

The FT report quoted Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to London, as saying on Zardari’s behalf that he was now fit and well.

Mr Hasan told the Financial Times on Monday that Mr Zardari had subsequent medical examinations and his doctors had “declared him medically fit to run for political office and free of any symptoms”.

“You have got to understand that while he was in prison on charges that were never proven, there were attempts to kill him,” Mr Hasan said. “At that time, he was surrounded by fear all the time. Any human being living in such a condition will of course suffer from the effects of continuous fear. But that is all history.

“In fact, many people were very impressed to see Mr Zardari go through the trauma of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but still hold himself together, hold his family, especially his children, close to him at this very difficult time.”

In the court documents which the FT claims to have seen, Philip Saltiel, a New York City-based psychiatrist, said in a March 2007 diagnosis that Mr Zardari’s imprisonment had left him suffering from “emotional instability” and memory and concentration problems. “I do not foresee any improvement in these issues for at least a year,” Mr Saltiel wrote.

Stephen Reich, a New York state-based psychologist, said Mr Zardari was unable to remember the birthdays of his wife and children, was persistently apprehensive and had thought about suicide.

Mr Zardari used the medical diagnosis to argue successfully for the postponement of a now-defunct English High Court case in which Pakistan’s government was suing him over alleged corruption, court records show, claimed the FT report.

The case – brought to seize some of his UK assets – was dropped in March, at about the same time that corruption charges in Pakistan were dismissed. However, according to the FT report, the court papers raise questions about Mr Zardari’s ability to help guide one of the world’s most strategically important countries following the resignation last week of Gen (retd) Musharraf, under whose rule the corruption cases against the PPP leader and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were pursued.

When Dawn asked Mr Hasan for his reaction to the FT report, the HC repeated what he had told the newspaper.

Adding, he said he suspected the hand of those in the establishment still opposed to the PPP behind the leakage of the medical reports to the international media.

He further said he would not put it past even those political parties which had put up their candidates for the post of the president knowing fully well that they did not have the numbers to win.

They have been known to have played dirty in the past as well, he maintained.

Updated Aug 27, 2008 12:00am

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