With no precedent available, it is premature to predict whether the civilian government will prosecute Pervez Musharraf or let him off to avoid confrontation with the military

General (retired) Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military strongman and once Washington’s trusted ally in the war on terror, may soon be prosecuted, the first time in the country’s history that a former army chief will face legal action for violating the constitution and tampering with its democratic institutions.

Nawaz Sharif, who was recently elected Prime Minister for the third time, told the National Assembly, the lower house of the parliament, on June 24 that Musharraf would be held accountable for imposing a state of emergency in November 2007.

Mr. Sharif’s decision received unconditional support from his staunch rivals in President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the previous ruling and the current main opposition party. And last week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court, hearing several petitions demanding that Musharraf be tried for “high treason”, directed the government to initiate a probe into the allegation and complete the investigation without “unnecessary delay”.

Surrounded by former victims

If tried and convicted, Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008, may be given the death sentence, the prescribed penalty for treason under Article 6 of the Constitution. With almost no political constituency and limited public support, Musharraf is currently surrounded by three powerful men, all of whom either directly or indirectly were victims of his policies.

Sharif was ousted as the nation’s Prime Minister, jailed and banished to Saudi Arabia by Musharraf following the bloodless coup of 1999; President Zardari’s wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, before being assassinated in December 2007, had implicitly warned that Musharraf would be “responsible” if she were murdered.

Lastly, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudry, who was also sacked by Musharraf on two occasions in 2007, is ready to encounter the man who kept him under house arrest and levelled corruption charges against him.

Costly double standards

At the time of his downfall, Musharraf had also lost international support for what appeared to be his double standards in fighting Islamic extremists who had found safe sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Osama bin Laden’s ability to hide in the backyard of the premium Pakistan Military Academy (PMA), mere miles away from the nation’s capital, Islamabad, underlined this, or even worse, his absolute incompetence. During his term, groups like Al-Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba gained significant strength despite the substantial American financial assistance given to Musharraf to eradicate the terror infrastructure inside Pakistan.

But when he did decide to take action against militancy — in the week-long military operation inside the Red Mosque in Islamabad in the summer of 2007 against female jihadists — it turned out to be a turning point in Pakistan’s history as it encouraged the formation of the Pakistani Taliban, an entity as — if not more — violent than the Afghan Taliban.

Musharraf’s mistakes

Musharraf’s policy failures notwithstanding, his downfall stemmed from at least three blunders he made on the domestic front.

First, the state of emergency he imposed on November 3, 2007, led to the suspension of the constitution, imprisonment of senior judges, ban on the media and widespread arrests of hundreds of lawyers and political activists. The emergency was Musharraf’s desperate move to get himself re-elected as the country’s president and also continue to hold the office of the army chief.

The second was the killing of Benazir Bhutto under his watch, in which he is now directly held by the Federal Investigation Authority to be a “conspirator”.

Third, the August 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a former governor and chief minister of Balochistan, whom Musharraf had publicly threatened to “hit” (read kill).

Musharraf’s trial is extremely consequential for the future of democracy in Pakistan. It is still premature to predict whether Musharraf would be prosecuted or provided a safe passage to flee the country in order to avert a confrontation between the civilian government and the powerful military. Pakistan, where the military has held political power for decades, has no precedence of punishing its generals, regardless of their actions.

The generals in Rawalpindi would not want to see one of their former bosses disgraced and punished.

Unique opportunity

But Prime Minister Sharif, it is a unique opportunity to permanently shut the door against future military coups by bringing a former military dictator to justice.

In the past, the Army could have prevented action against its former head with the help of a coup but that is very unlikely under the present circumstances. Sharif’s victory by a thumping majority only two months ago would be brushed aside only by the very foolish.

The Pakistani military and the international community should not interfere in Musharraf’s expected trial. Pakistan needs this trial. By bringing Musharraf and those who plotted with him to justice, Pakistan has the unique opportunity to give permanent root to its democracy and to abolish the culture of impunity.

(Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington DC, is the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper The Baloch Hal)

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