PERVEZ Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military ruler, has been charged with the 2007 murder of Benazir Bhutto, in a move his supporters have said is politically motivated.
The indictment of a former army chief of staff is unprecedented and will anger the country’s generals, who remain a powerful force.
Mrs Bhutto died in a suicide bombing in December 2007 as she left a campaign rally. She had only recently returned to the country and had repeatedly claimed that she was at risk of assassination. The investigation into her death has progressed haphazardly, amid accusations of cover-ups and incompetence.
Musharraf, 70, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, faces a string of court cases. He has lived largely under house arrest since returning to Pakistan from his four years of self-imposed exile in March.
He was led into the anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi amid tight security yesterday morning and appeared only briefly to be told he was being charged with murder. Journalists were not allowed into the courtroom for the 20-minute hearing.
“He was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder,” said Chaudhry Azhar, the public prosecutor. He later added that Musharraf was the main beneficiary of her death.
However, supporters of the man who ruled Pakistan for almost a decade insist the charges are trumped up and are designed to destroy his chances of resuming a political career.
Afshan Adil, a member of the former president’s legal team, said: “All the cases against Musharraf are fabricated. He denied all the charges.”
The charges prompted an emotional series of tweets from Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Mrs Bhutto’s son and political heir, welcoming the move.
“Hope ur mother lives a long life. I will not stop talking abt my mothers assassination until I get justice 10/100yrs whtever,” he replied to one critic on Twitter asking why the prosecution had taken so long.
The case has ripped apart an unwritten rule that senior military figures are untouchable in a country where the generals have held power for almost half its short history.
Musharraf’s indictment will only further inflame tensions between the military and the government. Many believe a plan is still being hatched to allow him to slip away from the country – possibly under the pretext of visiting his ailing mother in Dubai.
Imtiaz Gul, an analyst based in Islamabad, said Musharraf had badly miscalculated by returning to the country, and had left himself open to “political exercises” in the courts, although a conviction would be difficult to achieve.
“But even if the case proceeds he may still find a way to slip away with the help of his external friends – Saudi Arabia or former British or American diplomats,” he said.
Tapes released by Musharraf’s government at the time of Mrs Bhutto’s murder implicated Baitullah Mehsud, the then head of the Pakistan Taleban. He is heard to say: “It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her.”
He has since been killed in a US drone strike.
However, a United Nations investigation said in 2010 that Musharraf’s government had failed to properly protect Mrs Bhutto and bungled the investigation into her death.
Those findings have led to allegations that Musharraf was involved in a conspiracy to murder the two-time prime minister who was one of his fiercest opponents.
Despite the legal threats, Musharraf came back to Pakistan this year to contest a general election. He was eventually barred from standing.
His cause is not helped by the fact that Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he deposed and arrested in 1999, has since been returned to power.
The new government has said Musharraf should stand trial for treason for subverting the constitution and has appointed a committee to investigate him.
The offence carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.