ISLAMABAD — The trial of Pakistan’s former military leader, Pervez Musharraf, opened Tuesday, a week after an anti-terrorism court indicted him on charges of conspiring to murder Benazir Bhutto. The 70-year old retired general has pleaded not guilty. Independent legal experts say the case against Musharraf is flimsy.
Journalists are not allowed to cover the trial, which is taking place in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where Bhutto, who twiced served as Pakistan's prime minister, was assassinated in December 2007.
She was killed in a gun-and-bomb attack while leaving a political campaign rally just weeks after returning to Pakistan from years in self-imposed exile. Authorities claimed at the time that Taliban militants were behind the attack.
Prosecutor Chaudhry Mohammad Azhar told reporters Tuesday that a policeman and four doctors were supposed to testify against Musharraf in the opening proceedings, but that the doctors could not attend for “personal reasons."
“The police constable was present in the house [courtroom]. He was examined and cross-examined by the defense and the justice. Now, the four doctors have been summoned for the next date, on September 3,” he said.
Musharraf did not attend the proceedings, which took place under tight security. The anti-terrorism court accepted a request from defense lawyers that the former military leader be exempted from personally appearing in the court because of threats to his life.
Musharraf ruled Pakistan for nearly a decade after he seized power in a military coup in 1999. He survived two assassination attempts while in power, and Islamist extremists have vowed to kill him.
Respected lawyers believe the case against Musharraf lacks substance. Still, former acting Pakistani president and Supreme Court attorney Wasim Sajjad acknowledges the significance of the trial in a country that has experienced military rule for half of its 66-year history.
“It is the first time that a former president and former army chief is being tried in a court of law,” he said.
Bhutto warned before her murder that Musharraf, who was ruling the country at the time, should be held responsible if she was assassinated. But Sajjad says the outcome of the court case will depend on whether the prosecution can present evidence establishing a direct link between Musharraf and the murder.
“He has been indicted on the charge that he is somehow involved in the murder of Benazir Bhutto," he said. "A lot will depend on what kind of evidence is produced to link him [Musharraf] with the offense, because on the face of it he [was] not directly concerned with the security of anybody as president or army chief."
A U.N. investigation into the Bhutto murder was unable to fix responsibility on individuals, and investigators suggested that a clear chain of evidence leading from the scene of the crime to the actual planners would be extremely difficult to determine.
Soon after he was elected Pakistan's prime minister in June, Nawaz Sharif declared that Musharraf should be tried for treason. He was referring to a case pending in the Supreme Court, in which the former president is accused of putting top judges under house arrest in 2007 when he declared a state of emergency in the country in violation of the constitution.
In Pakistan, the maximum penalty for treason is death.