RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — In an unprecedented ruling that tests the military’s aura of inviolability, a court indicted former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf yesterday on murder charges stemming from the 2007 assassination of ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf, who became a key U.S. ally in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, pleaded not guilty.
The decision by the court in Rawalpindi marked the first time a current or former army chief has been charged with a crime in the country.
Musharraf, a 70-year-old former commando who took power in a 1999 coup and stepped down from office in disgrace nearly a decade later, now faces a string of legal problems that in many ways challenge the military’s sacrosanct status in Pakistani society.
The retired general was charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and facilitation for murder, said prosecutor Chaudhry Muhammed Azhar.
He did not detail the accusations against Musharraf, but prosecutors have alleged he failed to provide enough protection to Bhutto as she led her Pakistan People’s Party in a parliamentary election that might have given her a third term as prime minister. She was killed in a gun and bomb attack at a rally in Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad.
The charges also include clearing the scene of a crime and destroying evidence, Azhar said.
Bhutto was respected by many Pakistanis for her condemnation of militancy and support for the poor. But her premiership was marred by accusations of widespread corruption.
Her assassination set off protests across the country and helped propel her party to power in parliament and her husband to the presidency.
Bhutto’s supporters say Musharraf ignored requests for additional security, and a 2010 U.N. report on her death said he failed to make serious efforts to ensure Bhutto’s safety.