ISLAMABAD — Treason charges against Pakistan’s former military dictator, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, have become the nuisance that the country’s power brokers wish would somehow go away.
Musharraf’s prosecution has compromised relations between the country’s elected government and the powerful military at an inconvenient moment – just as a final decision needs to be reached on what steps to take to end the six-year Pakistani Taliban insurgency.
But finding a face-saving solution that would satisfy the military’s desire that the prosecution end and also stand up in court is no simple task. So far, nobody has come up with that magic formula. The longer the case against Musharraf drags on, the deeper its potential impact on relations among the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the military and the judiciary, analysts and politicians say.
For the seventh time since Dec. 24, Musharraf was due Friday to appear before the special court formed to try him for treason. For the seventh time, he didn’t show.
The government had deployed more than 1,100 police and other security personnel along the three major thoroughfares linking the court premises in Islamabad with the Rawalpindi military hospital where Musharraf has been ensconced since complaining of heart pains on Jan. 2 – just in case he decided to make the journey.
The court could revoke his bail and order his instant arrest, but again, the court backed down, accepting his lawyer’s promise that Musharraf would appear on Feb. 18, after the Supreme Court rules on his petitions challenging the special court’s jurisdiction and seeking the reassignment of the case to a military court.
That passed the buck back to the prosecuting government, which has been surprised by the “extent of unease” within the military over the charges of treason brought against Musharraf in November, aides to the prime minister said. The aides spoke anonymously because the government does not want to acknowledge the impact the case against the former strongman has had.
The timing of the proceedings against Musharraf also have worked in his favor, the aides said. They have coincided with a wave of terrorist attacks since December, which the aides said had built into “mounting pressure” from the military on Sharif to drop his insistence on exploring the possibility of a negotiated peace with Taliban insurgents.
Although government intermediaries started exploratory talks on Thursday with a team of cleric politicians nominated by the Pakistani Taliban, Sharif does not expect them to succeed and is understood to already have agreed to the military’s proposal to re-launch counterterrorism operations, probably by March.
Heading into that operation against insurgents based in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, which border eastern Afghanistan, “it’s essential that our democratically mandated government and the country’s institutions are in consensus and act in unison,” said one government minister, again speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Many solutions have been proposed, including one by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid party, that the constitution be amended so that Musharraf can be tried for simply violating it when he dismissed judges in 2007, rather than for treason. That’s considered unlikely to happen.
The most popular scenario, touted almost nightly by analysts appearing on Pakistan’s 20-plus cable news channels, is that Musharraf would make a single court appearance to be indicted and then be allowed to travel abroad on humanitarian grounds, probably to attend to his ailing mother, who lives in the United Arab Emirates.
His getaway vehicle would be a jet provided by a key Pakistan ally, such Saudi Arabia or the United States – something both of those country’s governments have denied.
While that scenario is popular on television, it has a major problem for the government and the judiciary – it would undercut the country’s push to establish the country’s democratic constitution as the nation’s ruling force, a goal too often thwarted by the whims of the military since Pakistan’s creation six decades ago.
Sharif chose not to prosecute Musharraf for the October 1999 coup he staged against Sharif’s government because he didn’t want the case to be seen as a vendetta, either against Musharraf or the army.
The judiciary has similar conflict-of-interest issues, because the case now against Musharraf was ordered by the Supreme Court in July, when it was led by an activist chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. He led the judges’ rebellion that prompted Musharraf to impose the November 2007 state of emergency and suspend the constitution, for which he is now being prosecuted.
But the judiciary has been equally uneager to take responsibility for the case since the appointment in December of a new chief justice, Tassadaq Jilani, who was among the rebellious judges in 2007. He has been careful to reduce confrontations in court with the military. That’s been reflected in the special court’s hesitance to impose sanctions on Musharraf for his refusal to appear.
Many analysts believe Musharraf intentionally is causing problems, hoping to force the army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, who took up his post in November, to play hardball with the government and the court.
“He wants the government to drop the charges. Obviously, the government won’t do that, because it would enable Musharraf to return to Pakistan as a political rival of Sharif at some later date,” said Nasir Malik, news director at Capital TV, a liberal cable news channel based in Islamabad.
Hugely unpopular, Musharraf has little, if any, prospect of a successful political career. But some believe the political theater has created an unforeseen legacy: making certain that the next military intervention into government won’t be bloodless.
Instead, predicted Asma Jehangir, the country’s top human rights activist, “the next military dictator . . . will kill 20 to 30 (top political) people and will occupy power for 20 years, not for 10.”
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.