Pakistan court indicts Musharraf in Bhutto assassination

Former president, who remains under house arrest, denies charges

Pakistan’s former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf arrives at an anti-terrorism court in Islamabad, Pakistan, in April. Photograph: AP

Pakistan’s former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf arrives at an anti-terrorism court in Islamabad, Pakistan, in April. Photograph: AP

Wed, Aug 21, 2013, 07:49

A Pakistani court indicted Pervez Musharraf yesterday in connection with the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. It is the first time a former military leader has faced criminal proceedings in Pakistan.

The court in Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad, filed three charges against Mr Musharraf, including murder and conspiracy to murder, said a prosecutor, Chaudhry Muhammed Azhar.

Mr Musharraf, who has maintained that the charges against him are politically motivated, pleaded not guilty, his lawyers said. Reporters were excluded from the hearing.

Afterwards, police and paramilitary rangers escorted Mr Musharraf 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 ruled by the military for about half of its 66-year history. While the military remains 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.

‘Totally ridiculous’
Mr Musharraf did not speak to reporters, 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 case is believed to rest largely on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist and friend of Bhutto, who says Musharraf made a threatening 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.

Mr Siegel said she had warned him in an email that if she were killed, the blame should fall on four people: a former director of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s main spy agency; a military intelligence agent; a political rival and Musharraf.

Otherwise, the prosecution has not made the basis of the charges public.

After Bhutto’s killing, Mr Musharraf’s government 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.

To a large degree, Mr Musharraf has brought his misfortunes upon himself. Against the advice of many aides, including senior generals, he returned to Pakistan from exile in March in the hope of contesting elections. Instead he fell afoul of the courts, which are controlled by an old rival, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who in 2007 led a protest movement against Musharraf that contributed to his downfall.

The courts have revived charges against Musharraf in several cases, including the assassination of Bhutto. Six other people were also indicted yesterday in connection with Bhutto’s death, including two senior police officers who stand accused of negligence or helping to cover up the assassination.