ISLAMABAD — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced Monday that his government would prosecute former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf on a charge of high treason, which, if he’s convicted, carries an automatic death sentence.
Musharraf led the October 1999 coup d’etat that overthrew Sharif’s then administration and he remained in power until September 2008, when he stepped down under pressure from the newly elected Parliament and was replaced by Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Sharif’s announcement came in response to a query from Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which has been pursuing Musharraf’s prosecution since he returned from exile in March, ostensibly to contest a May general election that was won by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. Sharif assumed the prime minister’s post last month.
"He suspended the constitution and is punishable for that act," Sharif said, self-vindication noticeably absent from his voice.
The Supreme Court responded by giving the attorney general, Munir Malik, three days to submit a detailed prosecution document.
Army chiefs have ruled Pakistan directly for half its 65-year history, but none has ever been indicted on charges of high treason. The penalty for overthrowing a democratically elected government is laid out in Article 6 of the country’s 1973 constitution.
The incumbent army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, indicated in April in a rare public address that senior officers were unhappy with steps to prosecute Musharraf, saying it was bad for morale when the army was fighting Pakistani Taliban insurgents.
Pakistani analysts said the unprecedented act of holding a military dictator accountable for his actions would reflect a new balance of power that had developed in the country since the 2008 general election.
Historically, Pakistani politics had been controlled by a troika made up of the army chief, a powerful president and a comparatively weak prime minister. In times of military intervention, the army chief has assumed the position of president, endorsed by the rulings of a weak and biased judiciary.
But that balance has changed since judges rebelled against Musharraf in 2007 after he sacked the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and most other senior judges after proclaiming a state of emergency.
The Pakistan Peoples Party government reinstated Chaudhry in 2009, but only under severe pressure from Sharif, who was then the national opposition leader. Since then, Chaudhry has ruled that no future military intervention in government would be justifiable – whatever the circumstances in Pakistan – and he specifically reached out to junior officers and foot soldiers, saying they, too, would be considered treacherous even if they were acting under orders.
Subsequently, Pakistan’s power structure has changed significantly and is broader and more competitive than ever before. The president no longer has the power to dismiss an elected government, and decision making – once concentrated in Islamabad by the generals – has been distributed to the four provincial administrations, each of which is ruled now by a different political party.
Freed of government censorship, Pakistan’s news media have become remarkably aggressive – many critics say irresponsibly so – and have developed a penchant for investigating political and financial wrongdoing, even as the judiciary has developed a taste for initiating public-interest proceedings. Both have overcome intimidation from the military’s intelligence agencies.
The extent of the change became obvious in April, when the court ordered Musharraf arrested for the 2007 overthrow of the judges – to wide acclaim – and then barred him from contesting the May elections, which resulted in the first-ever transition of one democratically elected Pakistani government to another.
The was little, if any, public criticism of Sharif’s announcement that Musharraf would be prosecuted.
Musharraf, who lives in confinement in a section of his Islamabad mansion, was formally arrested last week on charges of ordering the killing in 2006 of Akbar Bugti, a former chief minister of western Baluchistan province who’d launched a tribal insurgency that still rages.
Sharif has denied repeatedly that he bears any personal grudge against Musharraf, who arrested and jailed him before he was allowed to leave in 2000 for exile in Saudi Arabia after its influential royal family intervened diplomatically.
If Musharraf were to be convicted, his only constitutional escape would be via a presidential pardon, granted upon the advice of the prime minister.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.