Catching at straws

Facing a sedition trial, Pervez Musharraf seems to have little option

Catching at straws
Pervez Musharraf and his sympathizers are creating an impression that the top military brass is wary of his trial on charges of sedition. The government is weighing its options.

Several years ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari publicly vowed to punish Gen Musharraf under Article 6 of the Constitution. The punishment could either be death penalty or life imprisonment.

The People’s Party delayed the matter throughout its five-year tenure to avoid backlash from the military establishment and some international guarantors. The over-confidence of Mr Sharif compelled him to act differently.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced his government’s decision to try Gen Musharraf when Rawalpindi was burning after the Ashura violence this year. The announcement was taken as a diversion tactic.

[quote]Gen Musharraf was given the option of leaving the country, but he turned it down[/quote]

Under a judgment of the Supreme Court, the government is trying General Musharraf on account of imposing emergency in the country in November 2007. It sparked another debate with many people calling for the general’s trial for the military intervention of October 1999.

A former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s former ambassador to the United States has advised the prime minister against punishing Gen Musharraf, according to sources privy to the matters. Similar advice was given by a couple of other Gulf countries. But the interlocutors from Washington have been silent so far. Lobbyists are at work to build the international community’s opinion in favour of Gen Musharraf.

Policemen stand guard outside Musharraf's residence in Islamabad
Policemen stand guard outside Musharraf's residence in Islamabad

In a recent interview, Gen Musharraf almost created a new controversy by claiming the army would not accept any verdict against him. “I leave it to the chief of army staff how far he can go to defend me,” the former army chief told BBC. The army did not make any explanatory statement on what the former general was implying. A former aide of Musharraf said frustration was growing among all cadres of the army on seeing their former chief being dragged into court rooms. There is a little chance the army would express its displeasure publicly. The messages have, however, been conveyed to the prime minister, he said.

“I have authentic information that the top command has asked Mian Sahib to let General Musharraf go. But Mian Sahib is in a fix,” said former information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. He said Zardari would benefit from the trial, and that is why he was provoking the prime minister to execute the general. Nawaz Sharif has fallen into the trap without realizing it could be another fatal mistake of his political career, he said.

Some analysts and politicians say it is unfair to try Gen Musharraf for imposing an emergency in November 2007 but not for the military coup of October 1999.  Mr Rashid said the PML-N government was protecting former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was part of the bench that validated the 1999 military coup and allowed Gen Musharraf to amend the constitution for three years.

Ahmed Raza Kasuri, a lawyer representing Pervez Musharraf, speaks to reporters outside the special court formed to try the former military dictator
Ahmed Raza Kasuri, a lawyer representing Pervez Musharraf, speaks to reporters outside the special court formed to try the former military dictator

In 2003, the parliament passed the 17th constitutional amendment and validated all actions of Gen Musharraf with a two-thirds majority. However, the 18th amendment stripped the parliamentary validation of his unconstitutional cover. The 18th amendment went a step further demanding application of Article 6 starting from 1958, when the first martial law was imposed in the country.

In his defense, Gen Musharraf asserted he had taken advice from then prime minister Shaukat Aziz, his political allies, and the military establishment, before imposing the emergency, and that the true spirit of Article 6 demands due action against the collaborators as well.

That statement left everyone silent, except PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who said the general had sought his and others’ advice before imposing emergency rule in the country. He had the guts to say that a case of high treason should also have been registered against him, the Musharraf cabinet, and the top brass of the armed forces. He did say he believed the trial will not culminate in Musharraf’s execution.

Gen Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan before the May 13 general elections thinking he would get a warm welcome. He ignored the warnings of the military that the public opinion was not in his favor. They were right. He made the wrong move and got stuck in four different cases soon after his return. During the tenure of the caretaker government, Gen Musharraf was given the option of leaving the country. He turned it down still believing his party would perform well on May 11.

The federal government seems determined to take the case to its logical end. It extricates itself by saying the court would decide the fate of the former military dictator. Information Minister Pervez Rashid dismissed the reports of the government letting Gen Musharraf go scot free on any grounds. He also offered to bring the general’s ailing mother back home in a special plane. The general rejected the offer.

But foreign ‘well-wishers’ are reminding the prime minister how they had intervened to save his life in the year 2000, and arranged for a safe refuge in Saudi Arabia. It is yet to be seen whether that can be arranged for Pervez Musharraf.

Shahzad Raza is a journalist based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shahzadrez