Ex-Pakistani strongman vows return ahead of vote

March 23, 2013 - 4:28 PM
Mideast Emirates Pakistan

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf attends a ceremony to celebrate Pakistan National Day ahead his trip to Karachi on Sunday, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, March 23, 2013. Musharraf says he will follow through with his plans to return to his homeland despite risks of arrest and other threats. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf said he doesn't fear arrest despite facing criminal charges as he vowed Saturday to return to his homeland and contest upcoming elections after more than four years in exile.

But legal problems are only one challenge facing Musharraf as the Taliban warned they have an assassination team ready to kill the one-time military strongman if he sets foot in the country on Sunday as promised.

Musharraf announced in early March that he would return to Pakistan to take part in upcoming elections, despite allegations he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate ex-premier Benazir Bhutto, militant threats to his safety and a waning popularity. The deposed general said he would lead his party in elections scheduled for May 11.

"I am going back to save Pakistan," he told reporters Saturday during a press conference in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Musharraf has earned a reputation as a strongman who cried wolf after failing to follow through on previous promises to return home, but the likelihood of his return this time got a boost on Friday when a Pakistan court granted him pre-emptive bail — essentially preventing his immediate arrest — in three cases in which he's implicated, including Bhutto's death. Under the pre-emptive bail, he has 10 days to appear in court, which Musharraf promised he would do.

"I will face these cases with bravery," he said. Musharraf said "elements in Pakistan and outside" were spreading rumors that he was not returning, but that the granting of the bail would address some of those concerns.

The former general plans to travel to Karachi from Dubai accompanied by journalists and supporters of his political party, All Pakistan Muslim League.

Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup after then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempted to dismiss the general while he was out of the country. Officers loyal to Musharraf put Sharif under house arrest. Upon return Musharraf took control of the government, eventually naming himself president in 2001. He ran the country for nearly a decade until he was forced to step down in 2008 after growing discontent with his rule.

His return comes as Pakistan faces a nationwide vote marking the first time an elected government has fulfilled its term and handed over power to another elected government. In a country that has undergone three coups, including Musharraf's, there are precious few democratic milestones. Pakistan is struggling with rolling blackouts, rising inflation and widespread security problems.

While he was given a reprieve from the legal charges, he received no such leniency from militants who have been gunning for him for years. Just hours after his announcement Saturday, the Pakistan Taliban released a video threatening to unleash suicide bombers and snipers against Musharraf if he comes back. One of the two people speaking in the video was Adnan Rashid, a former Pakistani air force officer convicted in an attack against Musharraf. The Taliban broke Rashid out of prison last year, along with nearly 400 other detainees.

"The mujahedeen of Islam have prepared a death squad to send Pervez Musharraf to hell," said Rashid, who spoke in the video in front of a group of about 20 militants holding rifles. "We warn you to surrender yourself to us. Otherwise we will hit you from where you will never reckon."

Musharraf had been expected to address supporters at a gathering Sunday in Karachi near the mausoleum of Pakistan's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah. But police decided to cancel his permit because of a "very serious threat," said Tahir Naveed, the deputy inspector general of Karachi police. He said Musharraf would be provided with an armored vehicle to protect him due to the threats. Banners and billboards welcoming Musharraf back to Pakistan lined the street from the airport where he is expected to land.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, Musharraf came under intense pressure from the U.S. to back the Americans in the coming war in Afghanistan and cut off ties with the Taliban, which he did. For that, militants as well as many other Pakistanis saw him as carrying out the American agenda in Pakistan.

He's also vilified by militants for ordering the 2007 raid against a mosque in downtown Islamabad that had become a sanctuary for militants opposed to Pakistan's support of the war in Afghanistan. At least 102 people were killed in the weeklong operation, most of them supporters of the mosque.

Militants tried to kill Musharraf twice in December 2003 in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military is headquartered. First they placed a bomb intended to go off when his convoy passed by. When that didn't work, suicide attackers tried to ram his motorcade with explosives-laden vehicles. The president was unhurt but 16 others died.

Musharraf faces charges related to Bhutto's 2007 assassination, as well the killing of Akbar Bugti, a Baluch nationalist leader who died in August 2006 after a standoff with the Pakistani military. In another case, he's accused of illegally removing a number of judges including the chief justice of the supreme court.

Musharraf has called the charges baseless.

Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani government to hold Musharraf responsible for abuses committed while he was in office.

Although Musharraf comes from the military, analysts say it is unlikely that the military supports his return to Pakistan. The head of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has shown a reticence to involve himself directly in politics.

Perhaps the biggest shock to Musharraf upon his return may be his lack of popularity. He appears to be banking on widespread voter disgust with the coalition government headed by Pakistan People's Party that just ended its five year term, but analysts say he has little support and will likely only win a few seats in parliament.

"He's always had a very high opinion of himself," said Talat Masood, a former Pakistani army general and political analyst. "He thinks he can play a major role, and he can be a savior to Pakistan."

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Khan reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.