ISLAMABAD - Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf on Sunday denounced treason charges against him as a ‘vendetta’, and said he had the backing of the country's powerful army in the whole affair.
"I would say the whole army is upset. I have led the army from the front. I have no doubt with the feedback that I received that the whole army is... totally with me on this issue," Musharraf told reporters on Sunday at his farmhouse on the edge of Islamabad.
The treason charges relate to former dictator president’s imposition of emergency rule in November 2007, and if found guilty he could face the death penalty or life imprisonment. An initial hearing of the case, being heard by a special tribunal, was halted on December 24 after explosives were found along the route the former military boss was to take to court.
The case is due to resume on Wednesday and Musharraf has been summoned by the special court on Jan 1 when he would likely be indicted in the high treason case. But Musharraf said he had not yet decided whether he would attend.
"The way this tribunal was formed, which involved the prime minister and the ex-chief justice, this itself smacks a little bit of a vendetta," said the 70-year-old former general-president in his first comments to the international media since he was put under house arrest in April.
Sources close to him informed that the legal team under the head of Sharifuddin Pirzada would try to buy more time for him, by pressing the special court to first decide the matters of its jurisdiction to hear the case and lapses in the procedure adopted for the trial. However, in case the court insisted to bring the accused for formal indictment, Musharraf would appear before the court on Jan 1.
Musharraf said he had no objection to defending himself before a "fair tribunal or court" but admitted he was not optimistic about the special panel convened to hear his case. His lawyers have also dismissed the charges as an attempt by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999, to settle old scores through the courts.
The treason claims are the latest and potentially most serious in a flurry of criminal cases relating to Musharraf's nine-year rule that he has faced since returning to Pakistan in March. The case could put the government on course for a clash with the army, threatening further instability at a time when the nuclear-armed country is struggling with a homegrown Taliban insurgency, a chronic energy crisis and a stagnant economy.
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 66-year history, has not made any direct public comment on the case. But it is thought to be reluctant to have its former chief suffer the indignity of trial by a civilian court. But nothing has come so far of persistent rumours that a deal would be struck to let him leave Pakistan before facing the courts to avoid a clash between the army and government.
Analyst Talat Masood, himself a retired general, voiced scepticism about Musharraf's claims of widespread support among the military. He said that while some elements might be sympathetic, to say that the whole army was behind Musharraf was an "inflated assessment". "The army has already given its nod as far as the trial is concerned," Masood told AFP.
"Some who have not reconciled with this reality will have to accept it later. Army has already accepted the reality," Masood said, adding that he felt the case was a watershed in civilian-military relations, with the government trying to prove that not even senior officers are above the law. As the treason case has drawn closer, Musharraf's team have stepped up their media campaign to try to enlist international support. At a press conference in London last week, his British lawyers urged the UN to intervene in what they called a "stage-managed show trial" and asked London and Washington to "repay their debt" for Musharraf's support in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan to run in May's general election – won by Sharif – but it proved to be a disastrous homecoming. He was barred from running for office and hit with a series of serious criminal allegations dating back to his time in power, which ended in 2008. These include murder charges over the assassination in late 2007 of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as well as charges over the death of a rebel leader, a deadly military raid on a radical mosque and the detention of judges.
Musharraf's tribulations represent a dramatic change in fortunes for the man who led Pakistan into its alliance with Washington's "war on terror" and who was a staunch ally of then-US president George W Bush. To add to the former commando's humiliation, in April he was placed under house arrest – an unprecedented move against a former army chief in Pakistan. He has now been granted bail in all of the cases against him and is technically a free man, but Taliban threats to kill him mean he lives under heavy guard.