By Salman Masood and Declan Walsh
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan â€” A Pakistani court indicted Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the first time that 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. Afterward, police commandos and paramilitary rangers escorted Mr. Musharraf back 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 that has been ruled by the military for about half of its 66-year history. While the military remains deeply powerful, the prosecution has sent the message that Pakistanâ€™s top generals are subject to the rule of law â€” at least after they have retired.
Mr. Musharraf did not speak to reporters as he left the hearing, but Rashid Qureshi, a retired general and aide, condemned the charges as â€œtotally ridiculous.â€
â€œThere is no proof in the charges they have made,â€ he told the BBC. â€œThis is how the judiciary takes revenge.â€
The case against Mr. Musharraf is believed to rest largely on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist and friend of Ms. Bhutto, who says that Mr. Musharraf made a threatening phone call to her before she returned to Pakistan in October 2007. Ms. Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack as she left a rally in Rawalpindi in December 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 â€” a former director of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistanâ€™s main spy agency; a military intelligence agent; a political rival; and Mr. Musharraf.
Otherwise, the prosecution has not made the basis of the charges against Mr. Musharraf public.
As Pakistan plunged into turmoil after Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s killing, Mr. Musharrafâ€™s government quickly blamed Baitullah Mehsud, the former head of the Pakistani Taliban, for the murder. Weeks later, the then-head of the C.I.A., Michael V. Hayden, agreed with that assessment.
â€œWe have no reason to question that,â€ he told The Washington Post. Eighteen months later, the C.I.A. killed Mr. 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 and resurrecting his dormant political career. Instead he quickly 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 Mr. Musharraf that contributed to his downfall.
The courts have revived charges against Mr. Musharraf in several cases, including the assassination of Ms. Bhutto.
Six other people were also indicted on Tuesday in connection with Ms. Bhuttoâ€™s death, including two senior police officers who stand accused of negligence or helping to cover up the assassination.
They include Saud Aziz, a former Rawalpindi police chief, and Khurram Shehzad, a former superintendent of police, both of whom are accused of failing to provide adequate security to Ms. Bhutto and of removing crucial evidence by hosing down the crime scene soon after the assassination.
The politically charged case is likely to strain relations between Pakistanâ€™s judicial, political and military leaders. Mr. Musharraf already faces potential treason charges in a separate case that has caused simmering anger within the militaryâ€™s ranks.
The treason prosecution is supported by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose last stint in power ended in 1999 after he was ousted by Mr. Musharraf in a coup.
Security is a major concern for Mr. Musharraf, who has faced repeated Taliban death threats since he returned to Pakistan. A previous hearing, scheduled for Aug. 6, was postponed over fears for his life.
But those prosecuting Mr. Musharraf have also faced mortal peril. In May, gunmen assassinated the chief prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfikar Ali, as he drove to work from his home in Islamabad.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 27. The presiding judge, Habibur Rehman, accepted Mr. Musharrafâ€™s request that he not be required to appear personally.
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Declan Walsh from London.