Pakistan’s Musharraf now seems likely to escape treason prosecution

Pervez Musharraf, former general and president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, spoke to several hundred members of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, January 26, 2009.
Pervez Musharraf, former general and president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, spoke to several hundred members of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, January 26, 2009. MCT

The treason trial of Pakistan’s former military strongman, Pervez Musharraf, could drag on indefinitely after the court hearing the case ruled last week that he was not solely responsible for the illegal imposition of a state of emergency in November 2007, jurists and political analysts said.

Accepting evidence submitted by Musharraf’s lawyers, the three-judge court on Saturday ordered the government to expand its prosecution to include a former prime minister, a former law minister and a former chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The court has given the government until Dec. 6 to file a fresh case, failing which the court would have no option but to dismiss the charges against Musharraf. The government has said it would appeal the ruling to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, but it’s uncertain whether the Supreme Court can reverse a decision of the special court judges it had appointed, the jurists said.

Meanwhile, Musharraf hardly appears like a man pursued. He’s shifted his residence from Islamabad to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, where he regularly receives guests and hosts dinner parties for his supporters, and posts photographs and statements on dedicated social media pages. He also submits to interviews, the most recent of which aired Tuesday on the BBC.

If the special court’s ruling is upheld, as is widely expected, Musharraf’s trial would enable defense lawyers to submit evidence and call witnesses to support their contention that up to 600 officials collaborated with Musharraf to impose the 2007 state of emergency. During it, he sacked rebellious judges who had sought to block a reconciliation law issued to facilitate a transition to democracy after eight years of military rule.

The treason trial would either drag on indefinitely or collapse altogether, the jurists said, because the government is reluctant to antagonize the military, which remains the ultimate arbiter of political power in Pakistan’s fledgling 6-year-old democracy.

“A strong government was always a prerequisite to the success of the prosecution, but this government is very weak. I believe the future of this case has fallen into darkness,” said Tariq Mehmood, a retired high court judge who led a campaign to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf.

Musharraf agrees. In his BBC interview, the former president said Pakistan’s diluted democracy reflected its military-dominated political environment.

“I myself strongly believe in democracy, but I think here in Pakistan your U.K.- or U.S.-like form of democracy cannot be implemented,” he said.

The government brought the treason charges against Musharraf in November 2013 under orders from the Supreme Court, which was then dominated by judges he had sacked in 2007. A guilty verdict could result in either life imprisonment or execution.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose not to prosecute Musharraf for staging the October 1999 coup that overthrew Sharif’s previous administration, at least in part to avoid exposing as coup collaborators many army generals as well as judges who endorsed the military takeover.

But the court’s order to expand the case to include others would put Sharif in the same position that he’d hoped to avoid by not pursuing charges related to the 1999 coup. The three alleged collaborators include Zahid Hamid, a member of Sharif’s cabinet who was law minister for the Musharraf administration when it imposed the November 2007 emergency.

Defense lawyers said the special court’s decision to include suspected collaborators reflected the reluctance of both the government and the judiciary to accept the onus of responsibility for the prosecution of the former military strongman.

“The case has become a game of ping-pong in which the government is seeking to shift responsibility onto the court, only for the court to throw it right back. That has knocked the stuffing out of the case,” said Mohammed Ali Saif, one of several politician-lawyers defending Musharraf.

Other actions indicate that the zest for trying Musharraf has disappeared with the retirement of the judges he’d sacked in 2007. The government has not pressed the Supreme Court its appeal of a court ruling that would allow Musharraf to travel abroad, and the court itself has shown no interest in bringing the appeal up on its own.

The treason case has been a point of tension between the government and the military. The military refused to cooperate with government investigators collecting evidence against Musharraf, and it provided him sanctuary at a military hospital in Rawalpindi when he played truant from court on grounds of ill health.

Those tensions have dissipated recently, but only after the government secretly assured the military it would not aggressively prosecute the case, political analysts said.

“The story is dead now because an understanding has been reached between the government and the military. I believe the government is not going to pursue the case,” said Javed Siddique, the Islamabad-based editor of Nawa-i-Waqt, a popular Urdu-language daily politically allied with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. “Sharif has realized this is beyond his powers. Such is the rare nature of Pakistan’s democracy.”

Prosecution lawyers deny a backroom deal has been struck, but they also say the prosecution has no interest in whether Musharraf is found innocent or guilty. Instead, they say, the case is being pursued to establish the supremacy of Pakistan’s constitution and laws and to prove that they apply to all Pakistanis.