A Pakistani special court’s decision on Tuesday to hand down the death penalty to former dictator Pervez Musharraf is perhaps one of the most consequential decisions by the country’s judiciary in recent years. Mr. Musharraf, who captured power through a bloodless coup in 1999, was found guilty, under Article 6, of high treason for declaring a state of emergency in 2007. Then, Mr. Musharraf, faced with massive protests against his regime, suspended rights, carried out a nationwide purge against rivals and placed key figures under house arrest. The high treason case was filed by the Nawaz Sharif government in 2013. The court, in a 2-1 verdict, stated that Mr. Musharraf was guilty of violating and subverting the Constitution and gave him the highest punishment under the High Treason (Punishment) Act of 1973. Mr. Musharraf, currently in Dubai, can appeal. If the Supreme Court upholds the death penalty, he could still seek presidential pardon. While the legal battle can continue, what is clear is that the ruling is a setback to the military and the government. The Imran Khan government had earlier moved the Islamabad High Court, asking it to restrain the special court from passing the final judgment in the Musharraf trial. The High Court delayed the verdict and allowed the government’s prosecution team to present fresh arguments. But none of these came to his rescue.
This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that a military chief has been found guilty of treason and given the death sentence. It is significant given the complex institutional power dynamics in which the military has always held great sway. In a country that has seen coups and was ruled directly by the military for over three decades in total, it is not easy to stand up to the interests of the establishment. Still, that is what the judiciary is doing in recent days. Last month, the Supreme Court cut to six months the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s three-year extension given by the government. If he has to continue beyond the six-month period, Parliament has to pass new legislation in that regard, according to the court. If that was a challenge to the military-government nexus, the death penalty awarded to Mr. Musharraf, the once-all-powerful leader, has struck a blow against the establishment. It could act as a legal deterrent against any military intervention in civilian affairs. It also strengthens the judiciary as an institution further, redrawing the institutional equilibrium in Pakistan’s power dynamics. The civilian authorities should seize the moment to alter the balance in civil-military relations. What Mr. Musharraf’s fate should be is up to the higher courts to decide. But the spirit of the special court’s judgment is to hold the men in uniform accountable for their actions and enforce the primacy of the Constitution. That is good news for democracy.