ISLAMABAD — Pakistani investigators Tuesday named former military dictator Pervez Musharraf as the prime suspect in the December 2007 assassination of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, raising the tally of capital charges leveled against the once all-powerful army chief over the last week to four.
The Federal Investigation Agency, Pakistan’s national police force, named Musharraf in a document seeking his indictment by the court hearing the Bhutto case in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad that houses the army headquarters.
Musharraf ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 after leading an October 1999 coup d’etat against Nawaz Sharif, who was then in his second term as prime minister and is now back in the office after his party won May elections.
The Federal Investigation Agency gave little indication of what evidence would be submitted against Musharraf, but it did say it included sworn statements from two Bhutto associates, Briton Victoria Schofield and American Mark Siegel. Both have previously said Bhutto had told them that if she were assassinated when she returned to Pakistan after a decade in exile, Musharraf should be held responsible.
Bhutto and Schofield attended Oxford University in England together in the 1970s and were close friends. Siegel was her longtime Washington lobbyist.
The FIA move came a day after Sharif announced to Parliament that his administration would prosecute Musharraf for high treason for twice abrogating Pakistan’s democratic constitution – first, when he led the 1999 coup and then, in November 2007, when he declared a state of emergency to facilitate the sacking of the rebellious Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
The two counts of high treason both carry the death penalty if he is convicted.
The court has given the attorney general’s office until Thursday to specify its planned method of prosecution, but the constitution specifies that treason charges must be heard by a specially formed tribunal of three Supreme Court judges.
Musharraf was also formally arrested last week for the 2006 killing of Akbar Bugti, a former chief minister of western Baluchistan province who rebelled against Musharraf’s rule in 2004, starting a low-intensity but brutal insurgency that continues to rage. Again, if convicted on the charge, Musharraf would face the death penalty.
He also has been charged with the illegal confinement of the judges he sacked in November 2007 under anti-terrorism charges that, upon conviction, would carry jail terms calculated in seven-year multiples with chain-gang-style hard labor.
Such legal accountability against a former military dictator is unprecedented in Pakistan’s 65-year history, during which it has been ruled by four military juntas for half that time. Even in previous democratic administrations, the military and its Inter Services Intelligence directorate have exerted more power than the politicians and twisted public opinion against them through propaganda campaigns in a weak and intimidated news media.
Probably acting on unofficial advice from the government and the military, no Pakistani news organization has even mentioned the possibility of a former army chief being executed for treason, despite the media being relatively free from censorship.
The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – who is Musharraf’s protege and successor – in a rare public speech in April, before the May general election won by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, had complained about the former dictator’s arrest and prosecution by a caretaker government.
However, political analysts reputed as being privy to the military’s political thinking wrote Tuesday that Sharif had discussed the matter with Kayani before announcing the decision to prosecute Musharraf. They believe that Kayani, while unhappy, had swallowed the decision because of reassurances that it would not publicly be styled as a trial of the military as an institution.
Musharraf is widely hated by the Pakistani public and has found few, if any, people to speak up in his defense.
The exception is Musharraf’s attorney, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, a small-time politician. His sole claim to fame in Pakistan is that he accused Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was prime minister from 1973 to 1977, of ordering the killing of Kasuri’s father.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was convicted of murder and hanged in 1979 after a trial that Western jurists dismissed as a farce staged by Gen. Zia ul Haq, who’d overthrown him in what was the third of Pakistan’s four military coups.
Kasuri previously had warned that any trial would force him to name others involved in imposing the November 2007 emergency – a long list of politicians, civil servants and military commanders, including the incumbent army chief. His tactic has been dismissed as an attempt to blackmail the military into intervening on Musharraf’s half.
In a 2009 ruling, Chaudhry, the reinstated chief justice, ruled that Musharraf was solely responsible for the October 1999 coup, effectively giving other soldiers involved amnesty from prosecution. Most commentators believe the same amnesty would be applied in a treason trial of Musharraf.
Analysts in Islamabad said Sharif had many reasons for taking on the military immediately after assuming the office of prime minister for a third time. He stepped down in his first term in 1993 under intense military pressure, and was overthrown in 1999, jailed and exiled by Musharraf during his second.
Sharif has said repeatedly that he carries no vendetta against Musharraf or anybody else.
The analysts said Sharif had chosen to act because he intends to rule by the letter of the constitution. The imminent retirement of Kayani in December, and competition among generals to be his successor as army chief, have created a one-time political window for Sharif to hold Musharraf accountable for his actions.
“Sharif and his advisers debated and weighed the matter, and decided that they must act,” said Rauf Klasra, the Islamabad-based editor of Dunya, a popular Urdu daily newspaper.
Sharif would face a difficult decision in the event Musharraf were to be convicted and sentenced to death by the courts. The constitution provides for a pardon by the president, a job held until September by Asif Ali Zardari, head of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party. He or his successor, who would be nominated by Sharif’s party, would act on Sharif’s advice as prime minister. In turn, Sharif probably would seek Parliament’s opinion which, if true to Pakistan’s political formbook, would be inclined toward reducing the death sentence to life imprisonment or exile – as Musharraf had done to Sharif in 2000.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.