Pakistan created history this week when a court indicted former military ruler Pervez Musharraf for treason on charges relating to his 2007 imposition of emergency rule. In Pakistan and outside, the development was called a historic first for a country controlled for half its history by the army. Tahira Safdar, one of three judges of a special court convened to hear the case, read out five charges, with the ex-president pleading ‘not guilty’ to each of them. It was equally important that Musharraf, who has been absent from most of the tribunal’s hearings owing to security threats and ill health, turned to address the court.
The indictment is important for another reason: it will strengthen democracy in the country. Military coups had always been a stumbling block in the country’s march towards democracy but recently Islamabad’s graph has gone up due to the freedom with which the judiciary has handled Musharraf’s case and the army’s willingness to let the law take its course. At least in the beginning, there were serious doubts about the ability of the court to take on a former military ruler. Some thought the army would intervene at the right time to rescue its former boss. But nothing of that sought has happened, and is unlikely to happen during the rest of the trial. According to some experts, instead of intervening in the case, the army chiefs are likely to learn the right lessons from Musharraf experience – that any unconstitutional grabbing of power by a military chief will not go unquestioned and even unpunished.
The case can proceed in several ways and it’s not clear whether the former military leader will ultimately be punished for his excesses. Since the indictment itself took far too long, a trial inside the country is still far from a certainty. The focus is now on what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has in mind: whether he will allow Musharraf to travel abroad, thereby reducing the likelihood of a return to Pakistan ever again. For now, the matter appears to be the federal government’s to decide, but it is likely to seek direction from the Supreme Court first. The pre-trial circus may yet continue for a while.
It’s worth noting that Nawaz Sharif has handled the Musharraf case with equanimity and honesty. He was the victim of the ex-army general’s coup, but hasn’t displayed any vendetta. Musharraf could be trying to leave the country to escape imprisonment. Confusion persists over whether he will be allowed a safe passage any time soon. While Nawaz Sharif has ruled out the possibility of his government taking Musharraf’s name off the exit control list, the interior ministry has advised Musharraf to go back to the courts to have his name deleted.