Pakistan’s former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf has been indicted on five counts of high treason, a charge that potentially carries the death penalty.
Yesterday’s decision, by a special court, is a blow to the country’s powerful military. It is the first time an acting or former army chief has been indicted for treason in Pakistan, where the military has taken power in three coups since the country was founded in 1947.
The indictment – the latest high drama in a series of legal cases Musharraf has faced since returning to Pakistan a little over a year ago – also highlights the tensions between the civilian government, which initiated the case, and the military, which has generally been above the law.
Musharraf, who appeared in court in Islamabad yesterday for only the second time in the lengthy court proceedings that began in December, pleaded not guilty to all five counts and delivered a near 30-minute defence of his time in office.
The general, who has been in hospital in the nearby city of Rawalpindi after complaining of chest pains on his way to court in January, said he was appearing at the hearing against the advice of his medical team.
“I am being called a traitor,” he said. “I put the country on the path of progress after 1999, when the country was being called a failed and a defaulted state. Is this the way to reward someone for being loyal to the country and for loving the country?”
If convicted, Musharraf could face the death penalty, but it remains unclear whether the trial will ever get that far.
His lawyers have been requesting that he be allowed to leave the country for medical treatment.
Defence lawyer Farogh Naseem again requested yesterday that Musharraf be allowed to leave Pakistan, this time to visit his ailing mother in Dubai.
Mr Naseem promised that his client would return to face further court proceedings.
“The mother is dying, for God’s sake,” he said. “He will come back. He wants to face the trial. He wants his name to be cleared.”
Musharraf’s lawyers have also challenged the court’s jurisdiction, saying it was inherently biased because the judiciary had helped lead popular protests that led to his resignation in 2008.
The prosecutor expressed sympathy for Musharraf, and while he did not say whether the former military ruler should be allowed to leave the country, he did not object either.
The general took power in a 1999 coup but was forced to step down in 2008.
The high treason case stems from his decision to suspend the constitution and detain a number of judges in 2007. The move backfired and led to widespread protests by the country’s powerful legal community.
Eventually, Musharraf was forced to step down, and he left the country soon after.
He returned to Pakistan in March 2013 after years in self-imposed exile, with the hope of running in the national election that was held in May.
However, he was disqualified from participating in the vote because of his actions while in power and he has spent most of his time since then battling legal cases.
Born in Delhi, India, he was raised in an Urdu-speaking family that migrated to Pakistan after the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947.
He fought in the 1965 war with India and attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.
Musharraf lived in Britain for much of the period between 2008 and 2013, also travelling the world on the lucrative lecture circuit, before returning to Pakistan.