Former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf salutes as he arrives to brief media and supporters during a press conference ahead of his return, at the Dubai APML party headquarters on March 24, 2013 in Dubai United Arab Emirates. The former Pakistani president and military ruler is returning to Pakistan after 4 years of self-imposed exile to participate in historic elections in May. Mr Musharraf has been granted protective bail in several cases, including conspiracy to murder which has paved his
ISLAMABAD -- A Pakistani court on Tuesday indicted former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on murder charges in connection with the December 2007 assassination of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, raising the specter of fresh discord between the country's civilian politicians and the powerful army, which maintains close ties with the U.S.
Major General (retired) Rashid Qureshi, an aide to the former leader, confirmed to CBS News that Musharraf had been indicted by a court in the city of Rawalpindi, outside Islamabad, where Bhutto was fatally shot just minutes after a political gathering. Musharraf ruled Pakistan for nine years, from 1999 when he seized power in a military coup, until 2008.
The Harvard-Oxford educated Bhutto made history in 1988 by becoming Pakistan's first female prime minister, and the first woman to lead the government of an Islamic country. She had already become an icon of Pakistan's pro-democracy movement, leading her country's largest political party -- the PPP or Pakistan People's Party -- to campaign against the 11-year military dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq. General Haq's death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 paved the way for Pakistan's return to democracy.
Pakistani TV channels reported that Musharraf had been charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and facilitating murder.
"The courts are completely biased," Qureshi told CBS News, repeating earlier claims that the trial was a politically motivated attack on the former military strongman. "This outcome has a very weak legal basis."
Musharraf emerged as a key U.S. ally just hours after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. He quickly withdrew support for Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and joined the U.S.-led war against Muslim extremists in the region. He returned to Pakistan in March this year after five years of exile, spent mostly between the United Arab Emirates and the U.K., to launch an ultimately failed political career.
Pakistani courts barred him from standing in the parliamentary elections in May which brought Nawaz Sharif to power as the south Asian country's prime minister for the third time. Sharif was ousted as prime minister by Musharraf in the 1999 coup and fled into exile in Saudi Arabia for about seven years.
Western diplomats told CBS News Tuesday that the indictment against Musharraf -- the first time a Pakistani Army chief has ever been charged with such a serious crime -- will put new stress on the country's tenuous civilian-military relations at a potentially awkward time for President Obama.
The planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan next year will require the use of Pakistan's territory for transporting American troops and military hardware out of the land-locked central Asian country.
"I just hope this is not Nawaz Sharif determined to seek revenge," said a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity. "The trouble is, any move to sentence Musharraf creates the risk of hugely endangering civil-military relations. If this case causes fresh infighting between the army and civilian politicians in Pakistan, U.S. plans to receive Pakistan's support could well suffer very badly."
A politician from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party said Sharif might eventually force Musharraf back into exile if he's convicted.
"If there is a conviction, the prime minister may treat Musharraf the same way he (Sharif) was treated and send the General (Musharraf) into exile," said the politician, who also asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak on the topic.
Though an exile option might go some way to reduce strained relations between Sharif and the military leaders, the Western diplomat cited earlier warned that, "the mere push to punish Musharraf will not go down well with the army."