The indictment of the army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup — once Pakistan’s most powerful man — was almost an unthinkable event in a nuclear-armed country ruled by the military for half of its 66-year history.
Bhutto, a former prime minister, died in a suicide gun and bomb attack in December 2007 after a campaign rally in the city of Rawalpindi, not far from the heavily guarded courtroom where the charges were read out yesterday.
“He should be tried,” the public prosecutor, Mohammad Azhar, told reporters after a brief hearing during which the three charges of murder, conspiracy to murder and facilitation of murder were read to Musharraf.
The case has shattered an unwritten rule that the top military brass are untouchable, as the South Asian country tries to shake off the legacy of decades of military rule under the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Musharraf toppled Sharif’s government in the 1999 coup, and memories of that time are still fresh in the current administration. Sharif was sentenced to a life in jail by Musharraf but was eventually allowed to go into exile.
Security was tight in Rawalpindi — seat of Pakistan’s military headquarters — after a previous hearing on Aug 6 was delayed due to threats to Musharraf’s life. The Pakistani Taliban have on many occasions threatened to kill him.
Journalists were not allowed in the courtroom for the hearing which lasted about 20 minutes.
Musharraf, who turned 70 on Aug 11, made no public remarks as he arrived, but denied all the charges against him once inside the courtroom, a lawyer from his defence team told Reuters.
“All the cases against Musharraf are fabricated. He denied all the charges,” said Afshan Adil, the lawyer. The next hearing was set for Aug 27.
Observers believe it is still possible Musharraf would be allowed to go back into exile in a face saving solution.
Imtiaz Gul, an independent security analyst, said the indictment might be profoundly symbolic, but there was still little chance of Musharraf actually being convicted.
Gul said the army, which would not comment on Tuesday’s indictment, had tried to warn Musharraf about the legal dangers he faced before he decided to return from exile this year to contest a May election.
Nevertheless, there would be many former colleagues angry to see their old boss dragged through the courts.