ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Prosecutors at a Pakistani court will next week charge former military ruler Pervez Musharraf with criminal conspiracy and the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, lawyers said Tuesday.
Musharraf, once the most powerful man in the nuclear-armed country, has been under house arrest since April. He appeared before the anti-terrorism court in person on Tuesday.
Indicting a former army chief would be an unprecedented move in a country ruled for more than half of its life by the military.
It would be seen by many as a far more serious challenge to the armed forces' power than his house arrest was.
Bhutto, twice elected prime minister of Pakistan, was assassinated in a gun and bomb attack in December 2007 after campaigning in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
"Pervez Musharraf appeared before anti-terrorism court today," prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar told AFP.
"Judge Chaudhry Habibur Rehman fixed the next hearing on August 6 for General Musharraf's indictment," Azhar said.
He said Musharraf would have to appear in person.
"The charges relating to criminal conspiracy and murder will be read out before him and he will have to sign the charge sheet, after which further trial will proceed," he said.
Musharraf's lawyer Ahmed Raza Kasuri told AFP the retired general would plead not guilty and the court had on Tuesday ordered that his bank accounts and assets be unfrozen.
"General Musharraf is appearing in all cases against him," Kasuri said.
The main prosecutor in the case, Chaudhry Zulfiqar, was shot dead in Islamabad on May 3.
There was no public claim of responsibility for Bhutto's murder.
Musharraf's government blamed her assassination on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement. He was killed in a US drone attack in 2009.
The Bhutto case is one in a series of court battles that Musharraf has faced over allegations dating back to his 1999-2008 rule, since he returned in March from four years of self-imposed exile.
The new government headed by Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf deposed in a coup in 1999, has said he should stand trial for treason and has appointed a committee to investigate the charges against him.
The offence carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.
He is also wanted over the death of Baluchistan rebel leader Nawab Akbar Bugti during a military operation in 2006.
On Tuesday Musharraf's application for bail in the Bugti case was rejected and he has been ordered to appear on August 19, a lawyer and court officials told AFP in the southwestern city of Quetta.
Musharraf, 69, returned from exile to stand in the May elections won by Sharif, but was barred from running for parliament because of the legal allegations against him.
He has been under arrest at his villa in an upmarket Islamabad suburb since April 19.
There is, however, lingering speculation about the possibility of a behind-the-scenes deal that could allow him to leave Pakistan without facing the courts and undermining the military.