Islamabad, Aug. 20: A Pakistani court today indicted Pervez Musharraf in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, marking the first time that a former military leader has faced criminal proceedings in Pakistan.
The anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, filed the charges of murder, conspiracy to murder and facilitation of murder against Musharraf, public prosecutor Chaudhry Muhammed Azhar said.
Musharraf, who has maintained that the charges against him are politically motivated, pleaded not guilty, his lawyers said. Reporters were excluded from the hearing. Afterward, police commandos and paramilitary rangers escorted Musharraf back to his villa on the edge of Islamabad, where he has been under house arrest since April in connection with other cases stemming from his rule from 1999 to 2008.
The sight of a once untouchable general being called to account by a court had a potent symbolism in a country that has been ruled by the military for about half of its 66-year history. While the military remains deeply powerful, the prosecution has sent the message that Pakistan’s top generals are subject to the rule of law — at least after they have retired.
Musharraf did not speak to reporters as he left the hearing, but Rashid Qureshi, a retired general and aide, condemned the charges as “totally ridiculous”.
“There is no proof in the charges they have made,” he told the BBC. “This is how the judiciary takes revenge.”
The indictment came amid speculation of a secret deal that will allow Musharraf, who turned 70 last week, to leave Pakistan without going to jail.
The case against Musharraf is believed to rest largely on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist and friend of Bhutto’s, who says that Musharraf made a threatening phone call to her before she returned to Pakistan in October 2007. Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack as she left a rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007.
Siegel said Bhutto had warned him in an email 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.
Otherwise, the prosecution has not made the basis of the charges against Musharraf public.
A 2010 UN inquiry report into Bhutto’s assassination had blamed Musharraf for his failure to provide adequate security to Bhutto.
As Pakistan plunged into turmoil after Bhutto’s killing, Musharraf’s government quickly blamed Baitullah Mehsud, the former head of the Pakistani Taliban, for the murder. Weeks later, the then head of the CIA, Michael V. Hayden, agreed with that assessment. “We have no reason to question that,” he told The Washington Post. Eighteen months later, the CIA killed Mehsud in a drone strike in the tribal belt.