(CNN) -- Former top Pakistani military officers Sunday called for Pakistan's former strongman to be allowed back without facing arrest and condemned what they called the "bashing" of the country's armed forces.
More than 100 former officers, most of them generals and admirals, signed their names to a letter calling for Pervez Musharraf to be allowed to return to Pakistan "and contest elections according to democratic norms." The retired brass included the retired Gen. Muhammad Aziz Khan, once the head of Pakistan's joint chiefs of staff during part of Musharraf's rule, and Adm. Shahid Karimullah, who served as head of the navy under Musharraf.
"We feel that Gen. (R) Pervez Musharraf should be provided with a level playing field in the political arena and also provided protocol and security as befits any ex-president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan," wrote the officers, who have formed a group they called "Pakistan First."
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has been living in London and Dubai since resigning in 2008. He had announced plans to return from exile in late January and run in upcoming elections -- but his party said he was reassessing those plans when Pakistan's elected government warned that if he returned, he faced arrest in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
A U.N. report in 2010 accused Musharraf's government of failing to protect Bhutto, who had returned to Pakistan from her own exile to run for office. Musharraf has denied the allegations, arguing that Bhutto had police protection and took unnecessary risks, but a Pakistani court issued a warrant for his arrest.
Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is now Pakistan's president. If Musharraf were to return, he would be walking into the middle of a public squabble between Pakistan's civilian and uniformed leadership that was sparked by a memo that allegedly asked for U.S. help to rein in the military.
In Sunday's letter, the ex-generals said they opposed the "bashing" of Pakistan's army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
"We feel that erosion of these institutions can only lead to weakening of Pakistan's position as a sovereign and proud nation," they wrote. "This forum feels that while all state institutions must be allowed to function within the purview of their respective roles, the demands of national dignity and state security dictate that all organs of the state as well as the media persistently raise and maintain the prestige and morale of the nation and its armed forces, both at home and abroad."
Zardari faces his own legal problems. His prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, appeared before Pakistan's supreme court Thursday in a battle over corruption cases facing the president and other officials, telling reporters the president has "full immunity" from prosecution under an amnesty granted by Musharraf before Zardari and Bhutto returned in 2007.
In 2009, the justices ruled that amnesty was unconstitutional and called on the government to reopen the cases. The government has not done so, and the court has cited Gilani for contempt.