ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s government initiated treason proceedings Thursday against former military strongman Pervez Musharraf, setting the stage for the first trial of a former dictator in this country, which has been ruled by military juntas for half its 66-year history.
The Justice Ministry asked a special court made up of three members of the country’s Supreme Court to hear the case, which alleges that Musharraf committed five acts of treason when he imposed a state of emergency on Nov. 3, 2007.
If convicted, Musharraf faces either the death penalty or life imprisonment.
The action against him is unprecedented. Two army chiefs, Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, respectively, ruled Pakistan from 1958 to 1969 and 1969 to 1971, but they were never charged with crimes stemming from their undemocratic assumption of power. A third, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, died in an August 1988 aircraft crash after holding power for 11 years.
The army remains the ultimate arbiter of political power in Pakistan, a factor that constitutional experts here said was one reason that the government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, decided not to prosecute Musharraf for the October 1999 coup that brought him to power. Any charges against Musharraf for that coup, which overthrew Sharif during a previous term as prime minister, would have extended automatically to still-serving army generals who helped him stage it.
The government has said it’s chosen not to prosecute Musharraf for the coup because Sharif has forgiven the general.
Sharif returned to power in June after his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, won a majority in general elections. It was the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in Pakistan.
The charges against Musharraf identify him as being solely responsible for the imposition of the 2007 state of emergency, based on official documents he signed at the time.
Musharraf imposed the emergency after rebellious Supreme Court judges sought to block his attempts to negotiate a safe exit from power through the so-called national reconciliation ordinance, a law that granted politicians and him immunity from prosecution as part of a transition leading to democratic elections in February 2008.
The judges were sacked under the state of emergency, then reinstated the next year under pressure largely from Sharif, who was the leader of the opposition. The judges then struck down the reconciliation law and Musharraf was forced to step down as president in August 2008.
That left the former army chief exposed to treason charges, and he lived abroad in exile until March, when he returned to run in the May general election. Instead, he was disqualified from participating and held under house arrest on four charges of murder, including the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
State prosecutors have been unable to present any substantial evidence against Musharraf in any of the murder cases, and his lawyers applied in November for bail and permission for him to leave the country, which Sharif’s administration pre-empted by announcing that it would charge Musharraf with treason.
Opposition politicians said the government’s decision to charge only Musharraf with responsibility for the state of emergency was designed to save generals and politicians who’d worked with him from being dragged into the case.
It also would save the judges embarrassing questions, because they’d first taken oath under a provisional constitutional order that Musharraf issued after the coup.
“By isolating Musharraf, the government is setting up the court’s verdict,” said Qamar Zaman Kaira, a spokesman for the Pakistan Peoples Party, the country’s biggest opposition party.
Musharraf’s lawyers have vowed to argue that the charges against him should be extended to his erstwhile colleagues or be dropped in favor of a lesser charge of abuse of power.
That position is also popular among some human rights advocates, who fear the trial will derail Pakistan’s path of civilian rule.
“Our history tells us that no individual has staged a coup without the support of the elite classes,” said Asma Jehangir, the chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a former United Nations special rapporteur.
“Collectively, we should apologize to the nation and move on.”
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.