Musharraf charged with Bhutto murder
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - Pakistan's former president and military ruler General Pervez Musharraf has been charged with the murder of former premier Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in a gun and suicide attack in December 2007.
An anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, in an unprecedented move, on Tuesday indicted Musharraf on three counts during a brief hearing. He may get the death penalty or life imprisonment if found guilty.
"He was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder," AFP reported public prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar as saying. "The charges were read out to him in the court. He denied the charges," said Azhar. "The case has been
adjourned until August 27 for evidence to be brought."
The indictment marks the first time a senior general (albeit retired) has faced criminal charges. Six others were charged along with Musharraf, including four suspected militants and two senior police officials.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March this year after living in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London since late 2008, having resigned as president that year under the threat of impeachment efforts led by then former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
He had seized power in 1999 when he ousted Sharif in a bloodless coup. Sharif regained the premiership in May this year through elections in which Musharraf had hoped to lead his own party, but the former dictator was disqualified from standing and found himself fighting an array of charges relating to his time in power.
Ms Bhutto was killed on December 27, 2007, in a gun-and-bomb attack outside Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh - the same park where prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. Twice-elected as prime minister (she held office from 1988-1990 and 1993-96), Ms Bhutto was killed after addressing an election rally in the garrison city. The present president of Pakistan is Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto.
That a once untouchable general is being called to account is a potent move in a country that has been led by the military for about half of its 66-year history. While the military remains deeply powerful, the prosecution of Musharraf signals that Pakistan's top generals may now be subject to the rule of law.
Besides Musharraf, others accused in the case include former City Police Officer (CPO) of Rawalpindi Saud Aziz, the then superintendent of police Khurram Shahzad, Abdul Rasheed, Rafaqat Hussain, Sher Zaman and Hasnain Gul.
Musharraf's legal team dismissed the indictment, while critics consider it a politically motivated case to distract public attention from the country's wide-ranging and deeply entrenched problems, including an energy crisis, high unemployment, slowing economic growth, terrorism and endemic corruption.
"All the cases against Musharraf are fabricated. He denied all the charges," Reuters quoted Afshan Adil, the lawyer of Musharraf as saying.
Musharraf's indictment disappointed his supporters not only in Pakistan but also abroad. His supporters in United Arab Emirates contended that investigations by the United Nations, Pakistani police and intelligence services could find no link between Musharraf and the assassination of Bhutto.
"We are all really disappointed that the court has charged Mr Musharraf for Benazir Bhutto's death," The National in Abu Dhabi reported Tabish Zaidi, a member of the central working committee of Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League party in Dubai, as saying. "There is no logic to the action taken the court because no evidence has ever been brought forward to say he was connected to Ms Bhutto's death ... The attack was carried out by the Taliban and they must be laughing at the way he is being treated now."
A report in the New York Times stated, "Indeed, prosecutors have publicly disclosed little detail about how Mr Musharraf might be linked to Ms Bhutto's death."
The report said, "The new charges are believed to rely heavily on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist and friend of Ms Bhutto, who said that Mr Musharraf made a threatening phone call to her before she returned to Pakistan [from her own self-imposed exile] in October 2007. Mr Siegel said Ms Bhutto had warned him in an e-mail that if she were killed, the blame should fall on four named people - a former director of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan's main spy agency; a military intelligence chief; a rival politician; and Mr Musharraf, who was then president and army chief.
''Two months later, Ms Bhutto was killed during a gun and bomb attack as she left a rally in Rawalpindi. Mr Musharraf's government quickly blamed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Weeks later, the head of the [US] Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Michael V Hayden, agreed with that assessment."
In February 2011, the anti-terrorism court (ATC) indicted Musharraf in the Bhutto assassination case, and in August 2011 he was declared a proclaimed offender.
On May 3 this year, the Federal Investigation Agency's special prosecutor, Zulfiqar Ali, who was investigating the assassination of Bhutto, was gunned down in Islamabad. The slain prosecutor was scheduled to submit a charge sheet against Musharraf in regard to the Bhutto case on the same day. He was appointed as special prosecutor in the Bhutto murder case some four years ago and since then he had presented six reports, or challans, in the court and was to present a seventh.
The legal action against Musharraf is both a personal humiliation and a declaration of the authority of the legal system over the military. The one-time dictator was at times presented as a moderate, in spite of seizing power in a military coup. Domestically, he attracted criticism for his role in helping the United States fight its "war on terror" and allowing the US to hit targets inside Pakistan with drones.
Local analysts believe the indictment of Musharraf will increase tension between the military and the civilian institutions, notably the judiciary and the government.
"They [the Army] will quietly monitor the situation as to how this case proceeds and to what extent it reflects negatively on the military," Agence France-Presse reported political analyst Hasan Askari as saying."They are not on the back foot but ... they will be concerned about implications of this case for the military."
Beyond the Bhutto murder-related charges, Musharraf faces a barrage of legal cases related to his time in power. These include his possible role in the murder of veteran Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006 and the dismissal of Supreme Court judges when he imposed emergency rule in November 2007. In the meantime, his farmhouse at Chak Shahzad on the outskirts of Islamabad, has been declared a jail for the purposes of keeping him in confinement.
Prime Minister Sharif announced in June this year that Musharraf would be put on trial for high treason for holding the constitution in abeyance on November 3, 2007. Under the constitution, such a trial can only be initiated by the federal government. All the political parties, including those in opposition, extended their full support to the government in its decision to try the former military dictator.
Sharif's announcement followed an earlier declaration before the May elections that if his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, came to power Musharraf would be tried for treason.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider (www.syedfazlehaider.com) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan (2004). E-mail, email@example.com
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