Important milestone

The indictment of Pakistan’s former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf on charges of treason marks a significant milestone in the country’s democratic transformation.

It is for the first time in Pakistan’s history that a military ruler is being held accountable for alleged violations of the Constitution. Pakistan has been under military rule for most of its post-independence decades. Hitherto, no military ruler or general has faced trial and that too for treason. What makes Musharraf’s indictment all the more remarkable is that he is being tried by a civilian court. The treason charge relates to his unlawful suspension of the Constitution and imposition of an Emergency in 2007. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces the death sentence or life in prison. Besides treason, he faces criminal charges in four other cases including one where he is charged with the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Elected governments in Pakistan have rarely dared take on the military. The Nawaz Sharif government has done so, signalling a new assertiveness on the part of civilian authorities.

Making military rulers accountable for their violation of the law is important for Pakistan’s evolution as a democracy. It could deter others from staging coups. But this will require the indictment of Musharraf to be taken to its logical conclusion. He must be tried and punished if found guilty. But this seems unlikely. The military has always projected itself as the country’s most patriotic institution. It is unlikely to allow one of its own to be tried for treason. It could, therefore, act to ensure that Musharraf is allowed safe passage out of the country.

Many believe that the Sharif government’s decision to act against Musharraf is driven more by revenge – it was Sharif that Musharraf ousted in the 1999 coup – rather than concern for strengthening the rule of law. The manner in which the government pursued cases against Musharraf – treason charges were levelled against him after he was let off on bail in all the criminal cases – has contributed to a perception that he is being politically victimised. The decision to impose emergency was not made by Musharraf alone. Why is he the only one being held accountable? In the circumstances, there is concern that Musharraf’s trial – if there is one – will not be fair. This will diminish the stature of the judiciary. Worse, it could encourage the military to intervene. That would jeopardise Pakistan’s fledgling democracy.

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