FORMER President Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan on Sunday after more than four years in exile, seeking a possible political comeback in defiance of judicial probes and death threats from Taliban militants.
The journey from Dubai to the southern port city of Karachi was intended as the first step in his goal of rebuilding his image after years on the political margins. But the former military strongman was met by no more than a couple thousand people at the airport, who threw rose petals and waved flags emblazoned with his image - a small turnout by the standards of Pakistani politics and a testament to how much his support in the country has fallen since he was pushed from power in 2008.
Musharraf said he was not cowed by a threat by the Pakistani Taliban to kill him.
“I’m not scared. I’m only afraid of God,” Musharraf told his supporters. “For the sake of my country, wherever I need to go, I will go.”
Since the former general stepped down in the face of mounting discontent, Pakistan’s civilian leadership has struggled with a sinking economy, resilient Islamic extremist factions and tensions with Washington over drone strikes and the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
He is viewed as an enemy by many Islamic militants and others for his decision to side with America in the response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. On Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban vowed to mobilize death squads to send Musharraf “to hell” if he returns.
Musharraf also faces legal charges, including some originating from the probe of the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who also spent time in self-imposed exile in Dubai before returning.
Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup and was forced out of office in 2008 amid growing discontent over his rule and the threat of impeachment by the country’s two most powerful political parties. He has since lived in Dubai and London.
His decision to return was given a boost last week when a Pakistani court granted him pre-emptive bail - essentially preventing his immediate arrest - in three cases in which he’s implicated, including Bhutto’s death. He now has 10 days to appear in court. He has dismissed the various charges as baseless.
His return comes as Pakistan seeks for the first time to hand power from one elected government to another.
Musharraf had been expected to address supporters at a gathering Sunday in Karachi near the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah. But police decided to cancel his permit because of a “very serious threat,” said Tahir Naveed, the deputy inspector general of Karachi police. He said Musharraf would be provided with an armored vehicle to protect him. Banners and billboards welcoming Musharraf back to Pakistan lined the street from the airport.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf came under intense pressure from the U.S. to back the Americans in the coming war in Afghanistan and cut off ties with the Taliban, which he did. For that, militants as well as many other Pakistanis saw him as carrying out the American agenda in Pakistan.
In addition to the Bhutto case, Musharraf also faces charges resulting from investigations into the killing of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch nationalist leader who died in August 2006 after a standoff with the Pakistani military. In another case, he’s accused of illegally removing a number of judges including the chief justice of the supreme court.