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Pakistan ex-leader Pervez Musharraf makes 1st court appearance in treason case

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf appeared in a Pakistani court Tuesday to face charges of high treason for the first time.

Though Musharraf spent less than ten minutes facing the panel of three judges, it was a landmark appearance in Pakistan, which has been ruled by powerful military commanders for almost half of its 67 years of existence as an independent state.

Proceedings in the high treason case against Musharraf officially began December 24, but Musharraf was unexpectedly taken to an army hospital in Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, on January 2 after complaining of chest pain.

His failure to appear in court for previous hearings sparked criticism from pro-democracy activists that the hospital stay was more an effort by the former president and his allies to avoid justice than to be treated for heart problems. There had been wide speculation that the nation's powerful army, which he once controlled, had somehow helped Musharraf avoid court appearances. 

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf
Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, center, surrounded by guards arrives at a court in Karachi, Pakistan, March 29, 2013. AP
 "We have shown respect for the court. That is why president Musharraf has appeared in the court today," Musharraf's lawyer Ahmed Raza Kasuri told reporters after the appearance at a well fortified court in Islamabad. Judge Faisal Arab, the head of the panel, set the next hearing in the case for February 21.  

The high treason charges relate to events in 2007 when then-president Musharraf implemented a nationwide state of emergency to curb dissent against his government and ordered the arrest of several opponents, including judges and pro-democracy activists. Musharraf has always denied any guilt and insisted the charges are politically motivated.

Western diplomats have warned that Musharraf's prosecution and sentencing could strain the already strained relations between Pakistan's civilian government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the influential army, which plays a key role in the U.S.-backed fight against Taliban and al Qaeda militants operating on both the Pakistani and Afghan side of the border.

"If Musharraf is sentenced, the army is likely to take this in a very negative sense. The future is hard to predict but the army's relations with Sharif will be under stress," said one western diplomat in Islamabad, who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity.