ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Former Pakistani president and army chief
Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 bloodless coup and remained in office until he was forced to step down in 2008, was the first former army chief to be arrested in a country where the military holds inordinate power.
In addition to the case involving the separatist leader, he faces murder charges in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and criminal charges related to the detention of judges in 2007. The court action Wednesday will allow Musharraf, who has been under house arrest at his farmhouse in Islamabad, to travel within and outside the country while facing charges, lawyers said.
"After some legal procedures, he'll be a free man," said his lawyer, Ibrahim Satti.
Satti said Musharraf, 70, was required to post surety bonds worth about $19,500. A three-judge panel found insufficient evidence to implicate Musharraf in the 2006 killing of separatist leader Akbar Bugti in a cave during an army operation in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, Satti said, although the case is ongoing.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March after nearly four years of self-imposed exile in London and Dubai to run in the May 11 general elections — reportedly against the advice of military advisors — and vowed to "save" the country. His hope of a return to power was frustrated, however, when he was disqualified from running because of his pending court cases, was handed a lifetime ban on running for political office and saw his political party fare poorly in the polls.
His legal problems are seen as a test of whether democratic institutions in Pakistan can chip away at the once-sacred position of the nation's armed services, which have assumed power in three coups since 1947 and, even during civilian governments, exerted enormous power.
Musharraf's supporters called Wednesday's court decision a victory for truth. "It proves he was wrongly accused in these politically motivated cases," said Chaudhry Asad Mehmood, a spokesman for Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League party. "He is not a coward and will not run away from his country."
The secretary-general of Musharraf's party said at a news conference that the former four-star general had no immediate plans to leave the country, and that even if he left, he would return to face all charges against him. "He will not escape from Pakistan," Mohammed Amjad told reporters in front of Musharraf's house.
Since he was charged, Musharraf has been held at his lavish estate on the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital, guarded from militant attacks by about 300 police officers and paramilitary and private security guards. The
Since Prime Minister
Sharif, who was prime minister when Musharraf staged the 1999 coup, is reportedly willing to let the former strongman leave the country gracefully. That's the best option, some said.
"I don't think Pakistani politics has space for him." said Nazir Naji, a political analyst, columnist and editor of the Lahore-based Daily Dunya newspaper.
Musharraf, who has angered extremists, has received 44 death threats since his return, a member of his party said.
"He has to choose between his life and politics," Naji said. "It won't be easy for the security agencies to protect him from the Taliban. He is their topmost target."
Another reason he may want to leave the country, analysts said, is a pending change in army leadership that's seeing a new, potentially less-friendly generation of officers promoted.
"These generals may have been junior officers during his tenure and may not have the same personal relationship with him," said Sohail Warraich, a Lahore-based political analyst.
Most of Musharraf's family, including his ailing mother, are already said to be living outside Pakistan. His daughter was reportedly told by intelligence agencies in July while in Karachi that she was on a terrorist hit list.