Pakistan's Supreme Court agrees to try ex-leader Musharraf for treason

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's top court on Monday accepted a government request to set up a special tribunal to try former military ruler Pervez Musharraf for high treason, an offence punishable by death or life in prison.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court of Pakistan announced in a statement that the Court had received a government letter asking for the establishment of "a Special Court to try General (R) Pervez Musharraf under Section 2 of the High Treason Punishment Act" of the Constitution.

After receiving the letter, the head of Supreme Court, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ordered all the high courts from the country's four provinces to put forward the names of any judges eligible for the three member special tribunal by Wednesday, the statement added.

Out of this list, Chief Justice Chaudhry will then choose three names for the Special Court and forward them to the government.

Earlier in the day, a court adjourned a hearing into a travel ban against Musharraf, his lawyer said.

The former general applied last week to be removed from the government's "exit control list" that stops him leaving Pakistan, to go to visit his sick mother in Dubai.

Musharraf is facing a host of criminal cases dating back to his 1999-2008 rule, including for the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

The Sindh High Court in Karachi put off considering Musharraf's exit control list application until Nov 22, after the government's attorney-general failed to attend court, lawyer A. Q. Hallipota said.

The decision to try Musharraf for treason, announced live on TV by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Sunday, puts the country's civilian leaders on an unprecedented collision course with the all-powerful military.

It comes after Musharraf was granted bail in other cases against him, stoking rumours a deal for his departure could be imminent.

The treason accusation relates to Musharraf's decision in 2007 to impose emergency rule shortly before the Supreme Court was due to decide on the legality of his re-election as president a month earlier while he was still army chief.

Critics said the announcement smacked of political opportunism and appeared to be aimed at deflecting public attention from sectarian violence on Friday.

At least nine people were killed in Rawalpindi, which neighbours Islamabad, during clashes on the most important day of the mourning month of Moharram, traditionally a flashpoint for sectarian violence.

Separately, the authorities in the north-western city of Kohat on Monday imposed a curfew after a fresh round of sectarian violence left four people dead, officials said.

The dead included two policemen while five others were wounded at a rally to protest against Friday's sectarian clashes which left the major city of Rawalpindi under curfew all weekend.

An editorial in Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language newspaper, said that faced with mounting crises, the government had decided to "change the subject".

Analyst and retired general Talat Masood said the timing of the announcement, just 10 days before army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is to step down, was "inappropriate".

"This is a case which involves civil military relations and is very sensitive and would not just be confined to Musharraf," Mr Masood told AFP.

"The matter could have been dealt with at a later stage - they are definitely trying to deflect from their failures to provide security during Moharram."

Mr Afshan Adil, a member of Musharraf's legal team and representative of his All Pakistan Muslim League, denounced the government treason decision but said her leader was unafraid.

Aides to the 70-year-old former commando have said he wants to stay and clear his name of all the charges against him.

So far the cases have proceeded at a glacial pace, edging from adjournment to adjournment with almost no perceptible progress made since April, beyond the granting of bail.

Analyst Masood warned the government had opened the way to yet another "judicial quagmire" with its decision to press treason charges.

Musharraf overthrew the government of Nawaz Sharif - elected to power again in May this year - in a bloodless military coup in October 1999, but a year later the Supreme Court validated the takeover.

During the 2007 emergency rule he suspended the Constitution and Parliament, and sacked top judges who declared his actions unconstitutional and illegal.

Musharraf technically became a free man this month when an Islamabad district court granted him bail over a deadly raid on a radical mosque in the capital in 2007.

But faced with Taleban threats to his life, he has remained under heavy guard at his villa on the edge of Islamabad.