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Benazir Bhutto death: Pakistan ex-military leader Pervez Musharraf charged with 2007 murder of prime minister

Decision by marks the first time Musharraf, or any former army chief in Pakistan, has been charged with a crime

Authorities in Pakistan have formally charged the country's former military ruler over the murder of Benazir Bhutto, who twice served as prime minister and was assassinated while campaigning to secure a third term.

In the latest set-back to former dictator Pervez Musharraf, the one-time army chief was today indicted on three counts over the murder of Ms Bhutto, who died in a gun and suicide attack in December 2007.

The move to bring charges against a former army chief is unprecedented in a country ruled for more than half of its life by the military.

The charges relate to one of a series of cases that Mr Musharraf has faced since returning from self-imposed exile earlier this year. He seized power in a coup in 1999 and was forced out in 2008 following an election won by Ms Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party.

“He was charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder,” public prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar told AFP at the anti-terrorism court hearing the case in Rawalpindi.

Mr Musharraf, 69, who was reportedly bundled into the court amid high security, denied the charges and the case was adjourned until 27 August.

He has been under house arrest at his home on the edge of the capital, Islamabad, since April 19.

Officials had said threats against his life were too severe earlier earlier this month for him to appear in court to face the charges.

“The charges were read out to him in the court. He denied the charges,” said Mr Azhar.

“The case has been adjourned until 27 August for evidence to be brought.”

Mr Musharraf's legal team dismissed the indictment.

“These charges are baseless. We are not afraid of the proceedings. We will follow legal procedures in the court,” said his lawyer, Syeda Afshan Adil.

Scores of security forces guarded the area around the court in Rawalpindi, the city where Ms Bhutto was killed on 27 December, 2007, and roads were sealed off Mr Musharraf's appearance.

The indictment follows speculation about the possibility of a behind-the-scenes deal that could allow the former military chief to leave Pakistan without facing the courts and embarrassing the military.

There was no public claim of responsibility for her murder. Mr Musharraf's government blamed the 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 Mr Musharraf has faced over allegations dating back to his 1999-2008 rule, since he returned in March from four years of self-imposed exile.

AFP said the new government headed by Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf deposed in 1999, believes he should stand trial for treason for subverting the constitution and has appointed a committee to investigate him.

The offence carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Mr Musharraf was arrested after returning from exile to stand in the May elections won by Mr Sharif. He was barred from running for parliament because of the legal allegations against him.

He is also wanted over the death of Baluchistan rebel leader Nawab Akbar Bugti during a military operation in 2006.