A civilian court in Pakistan sentencing a former Army chief and coup leader Pervez Musharraf to death is nothing short of an earth-shaking moment for a country that has had a long history of legitimising rule-by-khaki.
Whatever be the merits or demerits of the judgment — and the legal story is by no means over — the fact remains that a special court comprising Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth, Justice Nazar Akbar of the Sindh High Court and Justice Shahid Karim of the Lahore High Court, in a 2-1 verdict, has created history.
The three military dictators who preceded Gen. Musharraf — Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq — faced no problems from the judiciary. The Supreme Court conveniently unleashed the “doctrine of necessity” to dismiss challenges to martial law imposed by them.
Interestingly, the trial and sentence was not for the original coup against civilian Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif back in October 1999, but when Gen. Musharraf, who is currently in Dubai, imposed a state of emergency in November 2007. At the time, he held twin jobs — President and Army chief.
It’s clear that the Pakistani establishment — military and civil — was aware that something was cooking and had moved the Islamabad High Court to ensure that the special court did not pass a verdict in the Musharraf matter.
This sudden change in position by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government was much commented upon in the country since Prime Minister Imran Khan was a die-hard opponent of any compromise on the issue of Musharraf’s trial.
It could also explain the sudden tough line taken by the Chief Justice of Pakistan in the matter of current Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa getting an extension from Mr. Imran Khan for three years.
Given that the Army has always been an untouchable institution for civilians — both executive and judiciary — this sign of independence displayed by the special court is extraordinary.
As we know, the Pakistani Army, in a quiet and unseen way, can easily sway judicial verdicts one way or the other. With this special court, the Army may have run into a wall.
For the current Army chief and the institution, this verdict raises an existential question — what happens if the military has to stage another coup? And what happens when you are unable to protect even your former chief? Simple: you look weak and just like any other frayed Pakistani civilian institution.
In 1979, Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq sent former (Sindhi) Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the gallows in a murder case while deposed (Punjabi) Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif escaped with life imprisonment in 2000 on terrorism and hijacking charges. Eventually, Mr. Sharif went to Saudi Arabia as part of a deal with Gen. Musharraf.
Let us remember that Gen. Musharraf is a mohajir from Daryaganj in Delhi and not an influential Punjabi like Mr. Sharif. Usually, the military holds court to sentence civilians. But the roles have been reversed in Pakistan.