Pakistan’s former leader Pervez Musharraf has been charged with murder over the 2007 assassination of prime minister Benazir Bhutto, deepening the fall of a once-powerful figure who returned to the country this year to make a political comeback.
The decision by a court in Rawalpindi marks the first time Mr Musharraf, or any former army chief in Pakistan, has been charged with a crime.
Mr Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and stepped down from office in disgrace nearly a decade later, now faces a litany of legal problems that have in many ways broken taboos on the inviolability of the once-sacrosanct military in Pakistani society. He is currently under house arrest in connection with one of the cases against him.
The retired general was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and facilitation for murder.Prosecutors have accused him of failing to provide enough protection to Ms Bhutto.
Under Pakistan’s legal system he had previously been arrested on accusations he played a role in the assassination but the latest hearing marks the first time the government has formally charged him with a specific crime in Ms Bhutto’s death.
The former army commando appeared in person during the brief morning hearing and pleaded not guilty. Afshan Adil, a member of his legal team said: “These are all fabricated cases. There is nothing solid in all these case.”
Ms Bhutto was killed in 2007 during an attack at a rally in Rawalpindi, sister city to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1977 after being deposed in a coup, she was respected in Pakistan for her political commitment – she was jailed multiple times – and her condemnation of militancy and support for Pakistan’s poor. But her terms were marred by accusations of widespread corruption against both her and her husband.
She returned to Pakistan under a deal with Mr Musharraf allowing her to take part in elections, and his supporters point to the deal as proof that he had no objections to her return.
Her assassination set off a wave of protests across the country and helped propel her Pakistan People’s Party to office and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to the presidency.
Mr Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March after nearly four years outside the country and vowed to take part in the country’s May elections. But he has little popular support in Pakistan and ever since his return has faced legal problems related to his rule.
He has repeatedly vowed that he returned to lead his supporters in the election and that he would clear his name of all charges. But many questioned why he decided to come back considering the problems he would face and his almost non-existent popularity.
His return and legal troubles have put the military and newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a delicate position. Pakistan has undergone three coups since the country’s inception in 1947, and the military is considered the most powerful institution.
The military’s top leadership is not believed to have supported Mr Musharraf’s return from exile but they also would likely not want to see one of their own put behind bars or treated unfairly.
The case is also part of a strange changing of places for Mr Sharif and Musharraf. Mr Sharif was deposed by Mr Musharraf in 1999, and then forced into exile. But he eventually returned to Pakistan, waited out five years in opposition and then led his Pakistan Muslim League-N to a resounding victory in the May 11 elections.
Mr Sharif must tread carefully with the man who once put him in handcuffs. The new prime minister has his plate full of other problems and pushing aggressively for Mr Musharraf’s conviction could force a confrontation with the military he would wish to avoid.
In addition to the Bhutto case, Mr Musharraf is involved in a case related to the 2007 detention of judges and the death of a Baluch nationalist leader. The government is also pursuing a treason case against him in connection with the judges’ detention case.