An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan Tuesday indicted former military leader Pervez Musharraf on charges of conspiring to murder Benazir Bhutto, the country’s iconic politician who was twice elected as prime minister.
The court hearing took place amid extremely tight security in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where the powerful military is headquartered. Journalists were not allowed in the court room for a hearing that lasted just 20 minutes.
Prosecutor Chaudhry Mohammad Azhar says former President Musharraf was personally present in the court when the judge read out charges to him. He told VOA the former army chief has been charged with murder, conspiracy to murder and facilitating the crime.
“Yes, he [Musharraf] did appear himself and he was read over the charge against him. He pleaded not guilty and opted to be tried in the case,” Azhar said.
This is the first time that a former army chief has been charged with a crime in Pakistan, where the top military leadership until now has been considered untouchable by the courts.
The army has run the country for nearly half its 66-year history, and intervened at times through coups. The army continues to dominate foreign policy matters even though Pakistan is witnessing a sustained period of democratic rule since President Musharraf resigned under threat of impeachment in 2008.
Prosecutor Azhar says that Tuesday’s indictment has marked the formal beginning of the high-profile trial of Musharraf and the next proceedings will take place on August 27, when the court will record evidence against him.
Following the hearing Tuesday morning, defense lawyer, Afshan Adil, spoke with reporters outside the court and again rejected charges against her client, calling them fabricated.
“The [former] President denied all charges. He is not involved in the case at all, totally," Adil said. "In fact, I believe that of all the offenses that he has been charged with, not a single case is applicable on the President. I don’t know how these proceedings are being carried out against him.”
American lobbyist Mark Siegel, a former Bhutto speech writer, accused Musharraf of threatening her in a phone call before she returned to Pakistan from exile in October 2007. Siegel's U.S. law firm Locke Lord declined to comment when asked by VOA for his reaction to the indictment.
Pervez Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to rule Pakistan as military president for nearly a decade. The former army commando stepped down from office to avoid impeachment and left the country few months later after his supporters were defeated in the 2008 national elections.
He was ruling the country when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December of 2007. She was killed in a gun-and-bomb attack during an election rally in Rawalpindi, just weeks after she came back to Pakistan from years in self-imposed exile.
Authorities at the time blamed Taliban extremists. Musharraf insists he warned Bhutto of the danger she faced, rejecting allegations that he provided poor security arrangements for the former prime minister, which led to her assassination.
Musharraf ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Pakistan early this year to take part in the elections this past May but was barred from doing so because of pending legal cases. He has been placed under detention in his farm house near the capital city while the courts hear the cases against him.