ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Former President Pervez Musharraf, charged with high treason by the current government, failed to appear in court Wednesday to face a formal indictment for the second time in two weeks, while a testy exchange between his lawyers and a panel of judges added a new round of drama to the closely watched case.
The special tribunal ordered Mr. Musharraf to appear today, choosing to postpone the hearing one more day instead of immediately arresting the 70-year-old former military ruler and forcing him to attend the hearing. In a written order, it said that "the presence of the accused is required" in court.
Mr. Musharraf's lawyers, citing reports that explosives were found again Tuesday near the general's suburban farmhouse, argued Wednesday morning that his life would be in danger if he traveled to court. One of them invoked the specter of historic public assassinations, including U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Mr. Musharraf, a retired army general who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 and returned from exile last March in hopes of a political comeback, has been charged with illegally suspending the constitution and imposing a state of emergency in 2007 during a bitter confrontation between his office and the Supreme Court. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
His lead lawyer, Ahmed Raza Kasuri, warned the judges Wednesday that their own lives would be at risk if the trial proceeded. If Mr. Musharraf were harmed, Mr. Kasuri said, "this court would be responsible." He asked that the trial be delayed for five weeks to prepare adequate security.
Justice Faisal Arab, head of the special three-judge tribunal, retorted sharply that "this court will not be threatened," and that courts work "even in wartime."
Prosecution and defense attorneys also argued sharply over the fairness of the proceedings, according to Pakistani TV channels whose reporters were allowed inside the courtroom. Mr. Kasuri loudly denounced chief government prosecutor Akram Shaikh as a persecutor with close ties to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Mr. Musharraf in 1999 and won election again in May. Mr. Shaikh yelled back, "I can shout louder than you."
Despite the morning's verbal fireworks, the court issued its sober, matter-of-fact order shortly after noon, giving the aging general another chance to appear. The ruling noted that more than 1,000 police and other security forces are being deployed to protect Mr. Musharraf, and it said that if he did not comply, the court could order his arrest.
Mr. Musharraf failed to appear at his first scheduled court hearing in December, citing security concerns after caches of explosives were found twice near his home. On Tuesday, police reported again that a small quantity of explosives and a detonator had been found near his heavily guarded compound.
Mr. Musharraf's defense team has also filed legal petitions arguing that the tribunal process is unconstitutional and biased, and that because he was an army general as well as president in 2007, he must be tried before a military court. A separate civilian court rejected these petitions in mid-December, but the defense has since appealed.
This week, a separate war of words has unfolded over whether Pakistan's former army chief enjoys the sympathy of the country's large military establishment, or if his actions have embarrassed a once coup-prone institution that is now evolving in a democratic direction.
Analysts have expressed concern that the spectacle of the former army chief on trial in civilian courts could cause military unrest, especially if it expands to include other former officials.
In a round of press interviews last weekend, Mr. Musharraf asserted that the army was overwhelmingly on his side and that the charges against him were a personal and political vendetta by Mr. Sharif and his associates, stemming from the 1999 coup.
Response from various military quarters was swift but divided. Some groups expressed sympathy for Mr. Musharraf's efforts as president and disapproval of the current prosecution, while others distanced themselves from his dictatorial actions, saying they undermined Pakistani democracy. There has been no public comment from current military officials.