ISLAMABAD — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his first confrontation with the country’s military, may have just blinked.
In a legally significant concession to the country’s powerful generals, Sharif agreed Wednesday not to pursue one of four death penalty cases now pending against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif’s attorney general, Munir Malik, told the country’s Supreme Court that the government would drop its high treason charges against Musharraf for overthrowing Sharif in 1999, but that it would move forward with prosecuting him for suspending the constitution in November 2007, when he sacked and jailed the country’s top judges.
Both acts would qualify as high treason under Article 6 of Pakistan’s 1973 constitution and carry an automatic death sentence.
Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is the chief minister of Punjab province, told journalists in Lahore that the decision not to prosecute Musharraf for the October 1999 coup was made so that there would be no perception that the military as an institution was on trial.
“Please note, we have said all along we hold no vendetta against Musharraf or anybody else, and today’s instruction by the prime minister is a demonstration of our commitment,” he said.
Pakistani news outlets, quoting unnamed sources, have reported that Sharif conferred with the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, before announcing Monday that he would bring treason charges against Musharraf. It was unclear if there had been other meetings between the two men since the charges were announced.
Musharraf would be the first of four military dictators, who ruled Pakistan for half its 65-year history, to be held accountable for his actions.
While the unprecedented act of prosecuting an ex-army chief has been difficult for Kayani and his subordinates to swallow, they have concluded Musharraf brought the trouble upon himself by ignoring their persistent advice not to return to Pakistan from exile in Britain, analysts said.
Musharraf arrived in Pakistan in March, saying he would contest and win the May parliamentary elections and “save the nation” from the severe problems it had encountered since he was forced to step down as president in September 2008 after nine years in power.
Instead, he was disqualified from running and arrested for illegally confining the judges in November 2007. He has lived under house arrest in a small section of his Islamabad mansion since April.
The dismissal of the high treason charge for the 1999 coup may not make much difference to Musharraf’s fate. In addition to the high treason prosecution for the 2007 actions against the judges, he’s also charged with ordering the 2006 killing of an insurgent politician in western Baluchistan province, and on Monday he was named the government’s primary suspect in the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Each of those charges also carry the death penalty.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.