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In a historic first for Pakistan, a court has indicted the country’s former army chief and president for his alleged role in the assassination of the Benazir Bhutto, the country’s former prime minister.
The indictment is the most serious challenge for Pervez Musharraf since his return to Pakistan this March. It is also the first time in Pakistan that a head of the armed forces has been charged with a crime.
Musharraf, who is under house arrest, appeared in court to plead “not guilty” to the charges, which include murder, conspiracy to commit murder and facilitation of murder.
The government prosecutor told The Wall Street Journal that Musharraf “conspired with his subordinates and others to get [Bhutto] murdered. He was the main beneficiary. He denied her security.” Musharraf’s lawyers say “these are fabricated cases,” lacking any solid evidence.
Former Prime Minister Bhutto was at a political rally in 2007 when attackers with guns and bombs assassinated her. She was both a polarizing and deeply popular figure who had twice served as the country’s prime minister.
The case comes after the first-ever democratic transfer of power in Pakistani history, and it pits Musharraf against a long-time rival, current prime minister Navaz Sharif, the man Musharraf deposed in a coup and forced into exile in 1999.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. In a first for Pakistan, a court has indicted the country's former army chief and president for his alleged role in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
CHAKRABARTI: The indictment is the most serious challenge for Pervez Musharraf since his return from exile this March. It's also the first time in Pakistan that a head of the armed forces has been charged with a crime. Owen Bennett-Jones, a veteran of the BBC, is with us. And Owen, first remind us how Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.
OWEN BENNETT-JONES, BBC WORLD SERVICE: It was during the election campaign, and she'd returned to the country from her self-imposed exile in London and the Gulf States and came back. And on the first day she came back, there was a very serious attempt on her life, in which over 100 people died, but she survived.
She went on campaigning, showed absolutely no fear in the face of a very clear threat, and eventually the same group, I think, who tried to kill her in Karachi caught up with her in Rawalpindi. And just to say one more thing about it, it was absolutely a remarkable fact that all the people who killed her on the day were under the age of 16. It was a bunch of boys.
CHAKRABARTI: And so what is the government alleging about Musharraf's supposed connection to the assassination?
SERVICE: Well a couple of things. They're accusing him of murder, which, I mean, unless there's some funny legal definition that's not obviously apparent, I mean, it can't be the case. Because as I say, she was killed by some children. They're also charging him with conspiracy to murder, in other words who commissioned these boys, and also with failing to provide her with adequate security.
And I have to say there were many assassination attempts on General Musharraf himself, and he survived. You know, the Pakistan state proved capable of protecting him, and it didn't really make much of an effort to protect Benazir Bhutto, and she died.
CHAKRABARTI: Pervez Musharraf is accused of not having provided security for Benazir Bhutto, and in fact a U.N. report was critical of the handling of the crime scene, even after the assassination. For example the area was hosed down, according to the reports. But Musharraf himself has always blamed the former head of the Pakistani Taliban for the assassination. And in fact U.S. intelligence has agreed with that. So what role might that play?
SERVICE: It's a complicated story. I mean, I think the Taliban did do it. Baitullah Mehsud was the leader of the Taliban at that time. There is strong reason to believe that he did indeed organize, via one of his suicide bomb factories, these young boys to kill her, and they tried a few times before, actually.
But the question is: Who commissioned Baitullah Mehsud to do it? Now I mean, I don't buy the fact that he just did it on his own initiative. The question is who in the Pakistani state asked him to do it. And yeah, the answer to that is not clear and I suspect never will be. Benazir Bhutto herself gave some names before her death who she said were plotting against her, senior retired military officials, maybe. None of them - this is an incredible fact - none of them have been investigated.
I think I'm right in saying some of them have never even been interviewed to be asked what their role was.
CHAKRABARTI: Owen, let's take a step back here because in Pakistan, it's rather a hornet's nest, the relationships between the government, the army, the Taliban. So talk about the politics of this case within Pakistan itself.
SERVICE: Yeah, there are various forces in Pakistan society, but the army, which includes the intelligence services; you've then got the democratic politicians; and you then have the religious element, the extreme religious element. So those are the three groups. They're fighting out. And the new element over the last few years has been the judiciary, which has been extremely active and is now playing a big role in this Musharraf case.
CHAKRABARTI: We should note, though, that the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is the man Musharraf himself deposed in a coup and forced into exile back in 1999. But Owen, what will you be looking for as this case goes forward?
SERVICE: Just to say, not only threw him into exile but threw him into an extremely unpleasant prison cell in a town called Attock, in a very ancient fort there, actually a terrible place. So I mean, Nawaz Sharif no doubt has plenty to complain about when it comes to his attitude towards general Musharraf.
So what are we looking for? We're looking to see whether the wronged prime minister, as he sees himself, and the wronged chief justice, as he sees himself, both with a grudge against Musharraf, pursue this case and put him into prison.
Now there are other charges, and it would seem that there's a much more obvious charge, which is that he led a coup. I mean, he took power illegally, which seems to be a much simpler case to go for that. I mean, and that case is there, as well. They're thinking of doing that. There are a number of cases he faces. Will they pursue it to the point of sending him to prison, which will be a big blow to the army's prestige?
I think they want to, and I think they're waiting to see how the army would react. And if they think they can get away with it, they'll do it.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Owen Bennett-Jones is a veteran journalist with the BBC and author of the book "Target Britain." Owen, thank you.
SERVICE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.