RAWALPINDI // The former Paksitani president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, was indicted yesterday on murder charges in connection with the 2007 assassination of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, deepening the fall of a once-powerful figure who returned to the country this year to make a political comeback.
The decision by a court in Rawalpindi marked the first time Mr Musharraf, or any former army chief in Pakistan, has been charged with a crime.
Mr Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and stepped down from office in disgrace nearly a decade later, now faces a litany of legal problems that have in many ways broken taboos on the inviolability of the once-sacrosanct military in Pakistani society.
He is currently under house arrest in connection with one of the cases against him.
The retired general was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and facilitation for murder, said prosecutor Chaudhry Muhammed Azhar. He did not specify what exactly Mr Musharraf was accused of doing but prosecutors have previously accused him of failing to provide enough protection to Bhutto.
Under Pakistan's legal system he had previously been arrested on accusations he played a role in the assassination but yesterday's legal proceedings marked the first time the government has formally charged him with a specific crime in Bhutto's killing.
The former army commando appeared in person during the brief morning hearing yesterday and pleaded not guilty, said Afshan Adil, a member of Mr Musharraf's legal team.
"These are all fabricated cases. There is nothing solid in all these case," she said.
Bhutto was killed in 2007 during a gun and bomb attack at a rally in the city of Rawalpindi. The daughter of the former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1977 after being deposed in a coup, was respected in Pakistan for her political commitment – she was jailed multiple times – and her condemnation of militancy and support for Pakistan's poor. But her terms were marred by accusations of widespread corruption involving her and her husband.
She returned to Pakistan under a deal with Mr Musharraf allowing her to take part in upcoming elections, and his supporters point to the deal as proof that he had no objection to her return.
Her assassination set off a wave of protests across the country and helped propel her Pakistan People's party to office and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to the presidency.
A 2010 United Nations report on the circumstances surrounding her death was highly critical of steps taken by investigators, including the hosing down of the crime scene, the failure to perform an autopsy and their media conference the day following the killing in which they blamed a Taliban commander.
The report also said Mr Musharraf failed to make serious efforts to ensure Bhutto's safety. His supporters have dismissed the report's findings.
The judge set August 27 as the next court date to present evidence.
Mr Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March, after nearly four years outside the country, and vowed to take part in the country's May elections. But he has little popular support in Pakistan and ever since his return has faced a litany of legal problems related to his rule.
His return and legal difficulties have put the military and the newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in a delicate position.
Pakistan has undergone three coups since the country's inception in 1947, and the military is considered the most powerful institution.
The military's top leadership is not believed to have supported Mr Musharraf's return from exile but they also would likely not want to see one of their own put behind bars or treated unfairly.
The case is also part of a strange changing of places for Mr Sharif and Mr Musharraf. It was Mr Sharif who was deposed by Mr Musharraf in 1999, and then forced into exile. But he eventually returned to Pakistan, waited out five years in opposition and then led his Pakistan Muslim League-N to a resounding victory in the May 11 elections.
Mr Sharif must tread carefully with the man who once put him in handcuffs. The new prime minister has his plate full of other problems, and pushing aggressively for Mr Musharraf's conviction could force a confrontation with the military that he would prefer to avoid.
In addition to the Bhutto case, Mr Musharraf is involved in a legal suit related to the 2007 detention of judges and the death of a Baluch nationalist leader.
The government is also pursuing a treason case against him in connection with the judges' detention case.