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Court orders arrest of former Pakistani military ruler

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Jan. 16: Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf poses for a picture after an interview with Reuters in London. (Reuters)

Former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf and his bodyguards pushed past policemen and sped away from court in the country's capital Thursday to avoid arrest after his bail was revoked in a treason case.

The 69-year-old Musharraf jumped into a black SUV and escaped as a member of his security team hung to the side of the vehicle in a dramatic scene that was broadcast live on Pakistani TV. Lawyers shouted, "Look who is running, Musharraf is running!"

He raced to his large compound on the outskirts of Islamabad, which is protected by high walls, razor wire and guard towers. He holed up inside as dozens of police and elite commandos blocked the main road that runs to the compound and kept the converging crowd at bay. About 20 Musharraf supporters held banners and shouted slogans in favor of the former military ruler.

None of the security forces protecting the compound made any move to arrest Musharraf, likely because they were awaiting word from senior officials trying to figure out how to deal with a delicate situation.

This week has gone from bad to worse for Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 when he was serving as army chief and spent nearly a decade in power before being forced to step down in 2008. He returned last month after four years in self-imposed exile to make a political comeback despite legal challenges and Taliban death threats, but has since faced paltry public support.

A court in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Tuesday disqualified Musharraf from running in the parliamentary election scheduled for May 11, likely squashing his hopes to return to power.

Thursday's case before the Islamabad High Court involved Musharraf's decision in 2007 to detain senior judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, when he declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. The decision outraged many Pakistanis, and fueled a nationwide protest movement by lawyers that eventually resulted in Musharraf stepping down under the threat of impeachment.

Before he returned to the country nearly a month ago, Musharraf was granted bail for the judges' case and two others, meaning he could not be arrested when he landed -- a feature of Pakistan's legal system.

But the bail agreement was temporary. An Islamabad High Court judge, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who had extended the bail agreement once on April 12 refused to do so again Thursday and ordered Musharraf's arrest, police officer Ali Asghar said.

The judge said the case was "too serious" and must proceed, said one of Musharraf's lawyers, Malik Qamar Afzal.

Many policemen and paramilitary soldiers were on duty at the court, but they seemed caught off-guard and nobody appeared to try to prevent Musharraf from leaving as he pushed past them.

Another of Musharraf's lawyers, Ahmad Raza Kasuri, complained that the court didn't listen to their arguments.

"It is a one-sided decision," Kasuri said.

A third Musharraf lawyer, Raja Mohammed Ibrahim, said he would file an appeal with the Supreme Court on Friday, challenging the decision.

It was not clear what would happen next. Musharraf is also facing treason allegations before the Supreme Court. But he has not yet been officially charged with treason in any of the cases. Under Pakistan's constitution, the federal government would have to file treason charges, which it has not yet done. The petitions before the Supreme Court and the Islamabad High Court were filed by individuals. If Musharraf were charged and convicted of treason, the punishment would be life in prison or death.

He also faces legal charges in two other cases. One involves allegations that Musharraf didn't provide adequate security to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in a gun and suicide attack in 2007. The other relates to the death of a nationalist leader in Baluchistan in 2006.

Musharraf's decision to flee the court puts the Pakistani army in an awkward position. The former general is protected by paramilitary soldiers who officially report to the Interior Ministry, but are headed by senior army officers.

Ali Dayan Hasan, the director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, called on the military authorities protecting Musharraf to comply with the court's order and ensure that he presents himself for arrest.

"General Musharraf's act today underscores his disregard for due legal process and indicates his assumption that as a former army chief and military dictator he can evade accountability for abuses," Hasan said in a statement. "Continued military protection for General Musharraf will make a mockery of claims that Pakistan's armed forces support the rule of law and bring the military further disrepute that it can ill afford."

Pakistan has a long history of the army seizing power in military coups, and the service is considered the most powerful institution in the country.

Given the legal challenges and Taliban threats against Musharraf, many experts have been left scratching their heads as to why he returned. Some have speculated he misjudged the level of public backing he would get, while others suggested he was simply homesick.

Musharraf flew to the southern city of Karachi from Dubai on March 24. He was only met by a couple thousand people at the airport, a sign of how little support analysts say he enjoys in the country. A few days later, an angry lawyer threw a shoe at Musharraf as he was walking through a court building in Karachi.

The former military ruler applied to run for parliament from four different districts in Pakistan, which is allowed by the country's political system. Judges initially rejected three of his applications, but an official in the remote, northern district of Chitral gave him approval to run.

That changed Tuesday when the High Court in the northwestern city of Peshawar disqualified Musharraf in Chitral. He can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but legal experts speculated that chances the decision would be overturned were remote.