Pakistan’s former military leader, Pervez Musharraf, was formally charged by a court on Tuesday with the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the ex-prime minister assassinated during a political campaign rally in 2007.
Musharraf was indicted during a short hearing at a court in the city of Rawalpindi, a move that adds to the problems facing the former president who returned from self-exile in March only to be entangled in three legal cases, barred from contesting elections and put under house arrest.
Public prosecutor Mohammad Azhar told reporters that the 70-year-old retired general was charged with murder, conspiracy to murder and facilitation of murder.
But Afsha Adil, one of Musharraf’s legal team, said the cases against his client would not stand up in court.
“There is no evidence on record,” she said. “These are all fabricated cases, there is nothing solid in all these cases.”
Militant groups have vowed to kill the former army chief, who was whisked to court under heavy security, with hundreds of police positioned along his route.
Bhutto warned before her death that Musharraf should be held responsible if she were assassinated. His government was widely criticised for not doing enough to protect Bhutto when she returned to the country in 2007.
Nonetheless, many respected lawyers say the charges in the Bhutto murder case, and other legal actions initiated since Musharraf’s return to Pakistan, are flimsy.
They believe the prosecution will struggle to prove a link between Musharraf and the assassination of Bhutto, who died after a gun and bomb attack on her car as she left a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.
“The Bhutto case is a non-starter,” said Chaudhry Faisal Hussain, a lawyer. “The president is not bound to provide security to any individual. Security was the responsibility of the government and she had ample security”.
At the time, Musharraf’s government blamed the assassination on Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief killed by a US drone strike in 2009.
Heraldo Muñoz, an assistant secretary general at the UN and the chairman of a panel that investigated Bhutto’s assassination, has said there was no “proof of culpability” against Musharraf.
He does, however, bear “political and moral responsibility for the assassination”, Muñoz wrote in an extract of soon-to-be published book about the killing.
He said Musharraf did not provide adequate security for the former prime minister.
He quotes a former Pakistani diplomat who said Musharraf taunted Bhutto, allegedly telling her: “I’ll only protect you if you are nice to me.”
Musharraf is a hate figure within the judiciary and may struggle to receive a fair trial. The enmity dates from 2007, when top judges were put under house arrest after he declared emergency rule – the subject of another of the three cases against him, for which he was formally indicted in June.
The third case relates to the 2006 killing of Akbar Khan Bugti, a tribal leader in the volatile province of Baluchistan, during a military operation.
Potentially far more troubling for Musharraf was the government announcement in June that the former president should be tried for treason, a capital offence.
Only the government can pursue a treason trial and many analysts had assumed that the newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, would avoid picking a fight with the powerful army, which will not want to see one of its former leaders imprisoned or executed.
“Politicians on both side of the aisle would just like Musharraf to go away,” said columnist Cyril Almeida. “Going all the way would just dig up too much history for them.”