Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday became the
first army chief in the country's history to be formally indicted for a crime:
the murder of Benazir Bhutto during an election rally after her return from
exile in December 2007. The unprecedented move by the anti-terrorism court that
charged Musharraf could upset the all-powerful army and trigger an angry
In a hearing that lasted 20 minutes, the court indicted Musharraf along with six others, including two senior police officers and four suspected militants, on charges of murder, criminal conspiracy to murder and facilitation of murder. Musharraf denied the charges and the case was adjourned until August 27.
Musharraf, who was present for the hearing, was later taken to his palatial farmhouse in Islamabad's Chak Shahzad area where he is under house arrest since April 19. A large contingent of security forces guarded the area leading from his villa to the court in Rawalpindi, the city where Benazir was murdered after addressing a public rally on December 27, 2007.
"These charges are baseless. We're not afraid of the court proceedings. We'll follow the legal procedures in court," said Syeda Afshan Adil, Musharraf's counsel. Ilyas Siddiqui, Musharraf's second counsel, appealed to the court to exempt the former president from court appearance, citing security threats.
Chaudhry Azhar Ali, prosecutor of Federal Investigation Agency, objected to the request saying Musharraf was an accused in a murder case and could only be exempt on medical grounds. The court, after hearing the two lawyers, freed Musharraf from appearing in person. Reporters were excluded from the hearing.
The new government headed by Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf had deposed in 1999 in a bloodless coup, has also promised to put the ex-army chief on trial for treason for subverting the country's constitution. The offence carries a possible death penalty or life imprisonment.
The case of Benazir's murder is one of the three cases that the former military strongman has been facing in different courts since his return to the country from self-imposed exile earlier this year to contest general election. The other cases were related to the murder of a Baloch tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in 2006, and his attempt to sack the entire higher judiciary after he imposed emergency rule in the country in November 2007.
The Musharraf government had blamed Benazir's assassination on then Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Beitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement. Mehsud was killed in a US drone attack in August 2009.
According to UN report, Benazir's death could have been prevented but Musharraf's government failed to provide adequate security. Musharraf's aides at the time had dismissed the UN report as a "pack of lies".
Musharraf's indictment is first for an army chief in a country long ruled by generals since its creation. Incidentally, several officials linked to the cases against Musharraf have come under threat, with Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, the previous special public prosecutor in the Bhutto murder case, being shot dead by unidentified gunmen in May.
Agencies quoted Musharraf's aide Rashid Qureshi, a retired general, as saying that the charges were "totally ridiculous". "There's no proof in the charges they have made," Qureshi told the BBC, adding, "This is how the judiciary takes revenge."
The New York Times adds that the case against Musharraf is believed to rest largely on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist and friend of Benazir, who said that Musharraf made a threatening phone call to her before she returned to Pakistan in October 2007. Siegel said Benazir had warned him in an e-mail that if she were killed, the blame should fall on four named people: a former director of the ISI spy service, a military intelligence agent, a political rival, and Musharraf.
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