After 25 hearings at a special court, former President and Chief of the Army Staff Pervez Musharraf was indicted on March 31 for high treason, contrary to expectations that a civil court would not try a military dictator. For a country ruled for the most part by the Army this is a first, and its Defence Minister described the day as a milestone for democracy. Few imagined that Prime Minister Muhammed Nawaz Sharif would initiate proceedings relating to high treason against Mr. Musharraf, and his supporters — some of them still in the government — were dismayed, to say the least. The high jinks by the Musharraf defence team did nothing to improve his case in court, and at one point Justice Faisal Arab and his Bench rose in disgust at the behaviour of counsel. The court gave Mr. Musharraf a long rope by allowing him to seek exemptions on the grounds of security and health, and only issued a non-bailable warrant as a last option after he repeatedly failed to appear before it. There was a feeling that this trial was turning farcical and that the court was unable to exercise its authority.

The dramatic appearance of Mr. Musharraf and the overnight change of his defence counsel signalled a new phase in the trial. Not only were the charges read out to him, but the court was firm that the power to take any decision for him to go abroad either to visit his ailing mother or to seek medical treatment was vested with the federal government. He was not under custody and as such the court could not regulate his movement. The government in the past had refused to take his name off the Exit Control List, and despite speculation of a safe passage and a Saudi-brokered deal it remains to be seen if he actually leaves the country. That is not as significant as the fact that a military dictator who not only abrogated the Constitution but amended it illegally has been brought to book. The transgressions of former military dictators are now the subject of history and they all ruled with impunity. This civilian government which has been trying to enforce the rule of law — not an easy task in the best of times — has sent a tough message that it has the courage and the conviction to do so. Whether the trial will play out to its logical conclusion and how long the process will take remain to be seen. But a blow for civilian authority has been struck, even if critics dismiss it as symbolic, and this could mark a new phase in the lopsided civil-military relations in Pakistan. The government should build on this and strengthen the foundations of liberal democratic governance where the military and civilian authorities are not at loggerheads with each other but are part of a system where each has a clearly defined role to play.

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