Musharraf lawyers to appeal Pakistan arrest order

Lawyers are due Friday to appeal an arrest order against Pakistan's ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who is holed up at his fortified home in an unfolding drama that threatens to overshadow historic polls.

The Islamabad High Court ordered the arrest of the retired general on Thursday over his controversial decision to dismiss judges when he imposed emergency rule in 2007.

It was the latest humiliating blow against Musharraf, in power from 1999 to 2008, who promised to "save" the troubled nation and contest the May 11 vote after returning from four years of self-imposed exile.

Musharraf, also accused of conspiracy to murder opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and over the death of a rebel leader during a 2006 military operation, had repeatedly been granted bail since his homecoming on March 24.

No attempt has so far been made to detain the 69-year-old, who sped off from court with his bodyguards after the arrest order to his plush but heavily fortified home on the edge of Islamabad, where he has remained with riot police carrying shields and batons massed outside.

It is the first time that the judiciary has ordered the arrest of a former army chief of staff. Nuclear-armed Pakistan has been ruled for around half its existence by the army, considered the most powerful institution in the country.

"We will go to the Supreme Court tomorrow (Friday)," said a spokesman for his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) party, which is considered unlikely to win any seats after Musharraf was on Tuesday disqualified from running for parliament.

It remains unclear what will happen in the Supreme Court, which is hearing a separate petition demanding that Musharraf face trial for treason for imposing emergency law in 2007, punishable by death or life in prison.

"If he is placed under house arrest and his home is declared a sub-jail we will apply for bail and if not then we will try to get bail before arrest," added APML spokesman Muhammad Amjad.

"He will offer his arrest if it is considered necessary... We have not fled the city," he said.

Musharraf's team has sought to present life as normal.

"He is in high spirits... He is sipping coffee and smoking cigars," his lawyer Ahmed Raza Kasuri told reporters.

But political analyst Hasan Askari warned that any arrest or trial risked overshadowing the elections, set to mark the first democratic transition of power after a civilian government has completed a full-term.

"This is not a simple case, if the court starts his trial he will entangle others to save his skin. The case can go in the wrong direction and it may undermine the elections," Askari told AFP.

"The judiciary is overdoing it. It should show some restraint.... It can grant bail now and take up the case after the election which should be our primary objective," he added.

Musharraf's supporters say the arrest order is nothing more than a settling of scores for his dismissal of judges nearly six years ago.

The Islamabad High Court has separately summoned the capital's police chief to explain on Friday why Musharraf has not been arrested.

Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said Musharraf had "spread fear in the society, insecurity amongst the judicial officers, alarm in the lawyers community and terror throughout Pakistan".

He said sacking judges was "an act of terrorism", which is punishable by life in imprisonment, and recommended that it be added to the charges against him.

Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup, which was widely welcomed at the time in Pakistan, but he was forced out and threatened with impeachment in 2008.

The elected prime minister he ousted, Nawaz Sharif, is now the front-runner in the campaign for the May 11 general election.

Sharif told Pakistan's largest private TV network, Geo, late on Wednesday that Musharraf should present himself before the courts for "accountability".