ISLAMABAD: A Pakistani court Monday indicted former military ruler Pervez Musharraf for treason -- a milestone for civilian authority in a country long dominated by the army.
The charge carries the maximum penalty of death. But observers are uncertain whether authorities will allow the trial to be completed and risk angering the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for half its history.
Musharraf had missed most of the trial's hearings due to ill-health and security threats. But he appeared fit and confident after arriving Monday in a long convoy of SUVs with more than 2,000 security officials deployed on the route from an army-run hospital to the special court.
The ex-general, who seized power in 1999 and resigned in 2008, pleaded "not guilty" as Tahira Safdar, one of three judges hearing the case since December, read the charges relating to his 2007 imposition of emergency rule.
"I honour this court and prosecution, I strongly believe in law and don't have ego problems, and I have appeared in court 16 times in this year in Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi," the 70-year-old said, referring to a slew of other legal troubles.
He made an emotional speech highlighting the country's achievements under his tenure -- which initially encompassed economic reforms and rapid growth, but ended in rising Islamist bloodshed and a series of confrontations with an increasingly vocal judiciary.
"I am being called a traitor, I have been chief of army staff for nine years and I have served this army for 45 years. I have fought two wars and it is 'treason'?
"I am not a traitor. For me traitors are those who loot public money and empty the treasury," he added, in a veiled reference to civilian politicians long accused in Pakistan of feathering their own nests while in power.
Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November 2007, suspending the constitution shortly before the Supreme Court was due to rule on the legality of his re-election as president a month earlier while he was also the army chief.
He then arrested and sacked the country's top judges, including the chief justice, who challenged his decision.
Musharraf's defence team requested the court adjourn for eight weeks to allow them to prepare their case, and repeated a call for the retired general to be allowed to visit his ailing mother, who is in her 90s, in the United Arab Emirates.
"He has come voluntarily to the court and he has pleaded not guilty. He will come back voluntarily," lawyer Farogh Naseem said.
The court was likely to respond to this request in a written order later Monday.
After the hearing, chief prosecutor Akram Sheikh said Musharraf's main defence rested on the claim that he acted on the advice of then-prime minister Shaukat Aziz and the cabinet when suspending the constitution.
"He has taken the defence that he did not take these steps independently," Sheikh said.
"On this I have submitted before the court that it is now for him to prove that he did this on the advice of the prime minister and the cabinet."
The International Commission of Jurists hailed the indictment of such a senior military figure as "unprecedented" for Pakistan.
"This is an opportunity for Pakistan's judiciary to demonstrate that no-one is above the law and that everyone accused of an offence has the right to a trial that is, and is seen to be, impartial, independent and expeditious," said Sam Zarifi, the group's Asia director.
Monday's hearing was only the second time Musharraf had appeared in person before the court, delaying proceedings and raising speculation of a face-saving deal between civilian and military powers to take him out of the country.
Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said the question of how far the trial would be allowed to go ahead remained "a big question mark".
"If the military and civilian (leaders) are not on the same page in how far you can go, you will have instability," she said.
Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999, deposing then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who won re-election in 2013 when Pakistan underwent the first civilian handover of power since its independence from Britain in 1947.
Facing impeachment following elections in 2008, Musharraf resigned as president, going into self-imposed exile in Dubai. He returned to Pakistan in March last year on an ill-fated mission to run in the general election.