New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - Ousted Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was Wednesday formally charged with kidnapping, attempted murder, hijacking and terrorism, offenses that carry the death penalty or life imprisonment.
"I plead not guilty because I am innocent," Sharif told the anti-terrorism court in Karachi after Judge Rehmet Hussein Jaffri read out the charges.
Jaffri dropped the charge of waging war against Pakistan but charged the former premier with hijacking, a capital crime.
Jaffri said Sharif, his brother Shahbaz and five others had endangered the lives of 198 passengers and crew aboard a civilian aircraft heading for the city of Karachi.
"You also illegally confined the passengers and, by this act, created a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among the passengers. Thus you are charged with these offenses," the judge said.
The incident occurred on October 12th last year when Sharif and others allegedly refused to allowing the plane to land, diverting it instead to another city, Nawabshah.
Among its passengers was army chief General Pervez Musharraf, who had just been sacked by Sharif. With its fuel running low, the plane was eventually allowed to land only after troops loyal to Musharraf seized the airport.
Musharraf subsequently overthrew the civilian government and now heads the ruling military regime.
"I am not the one who hijacked the plane," Sharif told the court. "It was General Musharraf who hijacked the democratically-elected government."
After formally framing the charges against the seven accused, Jaffri set the start of the trial for January 26th.
Besides Sharif and his brothers, others who pleaded their innocence were the former chairman of the Accountability Bureau Saiffur Rehman, an advisor to Sharif, Syed Ghaus Ali Shah, former Pakistan International Airways chairman Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former Inspector General of Police of Sindh Rana Maqbool Ahmed and a senior bureaucrat, Saeed Mehdi.
The former director of the Civil Aviation Authority, Aminullah Chaudhry, earlier turned state witness or "approver" in the case against the others.
Outside the courtroom, Sharif told reporters that the allegations were "fake, false and baseless and were to justify the illegal and unconstitutional act of October 12th."
He accused Musharraf of unlawfully detaining a prime minister, "without being charged or without trial."
The charges were formally framed almost three months after the bloodless coup. It has been held up for several weeks because of legal arguments over jurisdiction and the nature of evidence.
A new judge was appointed to preside last week after proceedings were stalled because of the presence of plainclothes intelligence officials in the courtroom.
The case is being heard in one of the anti-terrorist courts set up by Sharif during his tenure to handle terrorism-related cases. The courts have handed down a number of death sentences.
Human Rights Watch recently questioned the operations of the courts, saying "convicted persons have only seven days in which to file appeals, and these, too, must be heard and decided within a seven-day period. These provisions contravene international human rights principles of due process, including the right of adequate time and facilities for the preparation of a defense."
A previous military regime hanged former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979 after he was convicted of conspiring to commit a political murder.