ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Former president Pervez Musharraf, accused of high treason by Pakistan’s current government, failed to appear in court Wednesday for the second time in two weeks to face a formal indictment, while a testy exchange between his attorneys and a panel of judges added a new round of drama to the closely watched case.
The special tribunal ordered Musharraf to appear Thursday, choosing to postpone the hearing by a day instead of immediately arresting the 70-year-old former military ruler and forcing him to attend the proceeding. In a written order, it said that “the presence of the accused is required” in court.
Musharraf’s attorneys, citing reports that explosives were found for a third time Tuesday near his suburban farmhouse, argued Wednesday morning that his life would be in danger if he traveled to court. One of them invoked the specter of notable public assassinations, including those of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Musharraf, a retired army general who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 and returned from exile in March in hopes of staging a political comeback, has been charged with illegally suspending the constitution and imposing a state of emergency in 2007 during a bitter confrontation between his office and the Supreme Court. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
His lead attorney, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, warned the judges Wednesday that their lives would be at risk if the trial proceeded. If Musharraf were harmed, Kasuri said, “this court would be responsible.” He asked that the trial be delayed for five weeks to prepare adequate security.
Justice Faisal Arab, head of the three-judge tribunal, retorted sharply that “this court will not be threatened” and that courts work “even in wartime.”
The prosecution and the defense also argued about the fairness of the proceedings, according to Pakistani TV channels whose reporters were allowed inside the courtroom. Kasuri loudly denounced chief government prosecutor Akram Shaikh as a persecutor with close ties to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in 1999 and secured a third term as premier in May. Shaikh yelled back, “I can shout louder than you.”
Despite the morning’s verbal fireworks, the court issued its sober, matter-of-fact order shortly after noon, giving the retired general another chance to appear. The ruling noted that more than 1,000 police and other security personnel are being deployed to protect Musharraf, and it said that if he did not comply, the court could order his arrest.
Musharraf failed to appear at his first scheduled court hearing, in December, citing security concerns after caches of explosives were found twice near his home. On Tuesday, police reported again that a small quantity of explosives and a detonator had been found near his heavily guarded compound on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Musharraf’s legal team also has filed petitions arguing that the tribunal process is unconstitutional and biased and that because Musharraf was an army general as well as president in 2007, he must be tried before a military court. A separate civilian court rejected these petitions in mid-December, but the defense has since appealed.
This week, a separate war of words has unfolded over whether the former army chief enjoys the sympathy of Pakistan’s large military establishment or whether his actions have embarrassed a once-coup-prone institution that is evolving in a democratic direction.
Analysts have expressed concern that the spectacle of Musharraf on trial in civilian courts could cause military unrest, especially if the case expands to include other former officials.
In a round of news media interviews this past weekend, Musharraf asserted that the army was overwhelmingly on his side and that the charges against him represented a personal and political vendetta by Sharif and his associates, stemming from the 1999 coup.
Response from various military quarters was swift but divided. Some groups voiced sympathy for Musharraf’s efforts during his presidency and disapproval of the current prosecution, while others distanced themselves from his dictatorial actions, saying they undermined Pakistani democracy. There has been no public comment from current military officials.
“We demanded this trial,” said Masud ul Hassan, a retired brigadier and the general secretary of an association of former servicemembers. “Our country has suffered at the hands of past military rulers who abused the system. We became a democracy at the same time as India, but we are still nowhere near a real democracy.”
Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired general and former intelligence chief, said some in the military liked Musharraf and appreciated his efforts, while president, to improve Pakistan. Others accused Musharraf of disrupting the democratic process but still appeared uneasy about the way the civilian prosecution is being handled.
“Opinions are split, and support is split,” Qazi said. “Certainly, this is not something the army is happy about, but if it is done correctly and without discrimination, it may be accepted.”