Supporters of Pakistan’s former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf gather outside a military hospital in Rawalpindi where Musharraf was admitted on Jan. 2. (B.K. Bangash/AP)

The treason indictment of Pakistan’s former military ruler was postponed for the third time Thursday after the 70-year-old retired army general was suddenly taken to a military cardiac hospital with an undisclosed ailment instead of appearing in court to face the charges against him.

A three-member tribunal, formed to try ex-president Pervez Musharraf for suspending the constitution in 2007, announced that it would allow him more time because of his reported medical problems. The court then ordered him to appear on Monday, but Musharraf’s lawyers said that would depend on his health.

The latest twist in the melodrama surrounding Musharraf’s case raised speculation in the Pakistani capital that a deal was being arranged to allow him to leave the country rather than face the humiliation of a civilian trial, which analysts believe could cause unrest in the country’s powerful military establishment.

Musharraf failed to appear in court in December and again Wednesday, saying his life was in danger after police reported finding small quantities of explosives near his suburban farmhouse. On Thursday, with judges and lawyers waiting in the Islamabad courtroom, word came that the defendant had instead been taken to a military cardiac institute in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Khalid Ranjha, one of Musharraf’s lawyers, told the judges that he had “started for court, but on the way he had some health problem,” and his convoy was rerouted to the hospital. Justice Faisal Arab challenged that explanation, asking sharply why Musharraf had not come to court earlier in the morning as scheduled.

The lead lawyer of Musharraf’s large legal team, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, denied suggestions that the former army commander was trying to avoid facing the charges against him, which could carry the death penalty if he is convicted.

“Musharraf is not afraid of anyone,” Kasuri declared. “He spent his whole life like a commando. He is not a coward. He came here to face these baseless cases, and if he were afraid he wouldn’t have come to the country.”

Musharraf returned from exile in March, nearly five years after he was forced to leave power amid a wave of national protests. He had hoped to run for political office, but the new government — headed by the man Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup — instead charged him in a number of criminal cases and put him under house arrest.

Aides to Musharraf, speaking to reporters outside the hospital late Thursday, offered no details about his condition. One aide, reached by phone at the ex-president’s house, said he was “okay” but that they were waiting for test results.

Commentators on Pakistan’s proliferation of news channels speculated all day on Musharraf’s health, state of mind and legal maneuvering. One friend told a TV interviewer that Musharraf was “heartbroken” at being mistreated by the courts and betrayed by former friends and allies who supported his actions as president.

Others suggested that the army, considered the most powerful institution in Pakistan, was trying to find a quiet way to avoid the embarrassing trial of its former chief without openly supporting him. Rumors circulated here that a visit by the Saudi foreign minister this week was part of an attempt to arrange Musharraf’s return to exile.

Defense Minister Khwaja Asif was quoted on one TV news channel as saying that the government had not made any decision to send the former president abroad. “Musharraf has repeatedly said he would face the cases and not go anywhere,” Asif said. “Now it is time he honors his commitment and faces the cases again.”