ISLAMABAD, June 24: After remaining on the backfoot for over a week due to the backlash it faced over the budget it presented, the government struck back on Monday by dramatically announcing that it would proceed under the law and try former military dictator retired Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appeared in the National Assembly after remaining absent for days and announced that the government would try the former general for subverting the constitution twice.
The announcement created a virtual storm in the country, shifting the attention and the debate from the budget and the current energy crisis.
After the dictator’s return to Pakistan the Supreme Court had asked the caretaker government to decide whether or not it would try him. In reply the caretaker set-up had said that it did not have the mandate to decide this issue and was only there to hold elections.
It was then clear that the new elected government would have to make the call.
And on Monday it did.
The decision by Prime Minister Sharif was instantly supported by all the parties, including the main opposition parties that had spent the last week bashing the government for its budget. These included Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).
Musharraf is currently under house arrest at his farmhouse in Chak Shahzad in Islamabad.
In his speech the prime minister said that the federal government was of the view that holding the constitution in abeyance on November 3, 2007 constituted an act of high treason within the meaning of Article 6 of the Constitution and Musharraf was answerable for his acts.
Adding that he was under oath to preserve, protect and defend the constitution he said that this meant that the government had to bring to justice those guilty of acts under Article 6.
He said though he “had borne the brunt of Musharraf’s brazen coup” he would act according to the highest standards of justice and would follow the due process of law.
The prime minister promised to take political forces into confidence before proceeding with Musharraf’s trial — this he said would reflect the collective will of the people.
Before he appeared in the parliament, the prime minister chaired a cabinet meeting where too this issue was discussed.
The cabinet also endorsed the decision: “The federal government in line with the Supreme Court decision in Sindh High Court Bar Association case firmly subscribes to the view that the holding in abeyance of the constitution on 3rd November 2007 constituted an act of high treason.”
Though it appeared that the cabinet meeting focused on the imposition of emergency on November 3, 2007, on the floor of the house, Mr Sharif spoke of October 12, 1999, when he said that an elected government, which enjoyed the complete confidence of the elected house, was ousted. He added that the independent judiciary was attacked on November 3, 2007 and restrictions were imposed against media.
Holding forth on the host of problems facing the country, he said that a number of the challenges stemmed from the deviation from the constitution. He then added that Musharraf would have to be held accountable for his deeds.
His speech was welcomed by most opposition leaders present in the parliament who also spoke in general terms of trying the general without going into any details of how this would be done.
Leader of the opposition in the house Syed Khursheed Shah was the first to applaud the decision. He praised Sharif’s promise to take the parliament into confidence and said that trying Musharraf was “a step in the right direction”.
He said that the photographs of all dictators should be removed from the parliament house building, adding that “there is no room for dictators in democratic institutions”.
Later, Shah Mahmood Qureshi of PTI too supported the decision and said that his party had always spoken in favour of the rule of law and adherence to the constitution.
MQM’s Abdul Waseem followed suit and pointed out that Article 6 should also be applied on those who had abetted dictators.
Sahibzada Yaqub of Jamaat-i-Islami, Akram Khan Durrani of JUI-F, and Ejazul Haq, chief of PML-Z, also welcomed the decision.
Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, head of his Awami Muslim League, initially asked the government to review its policy but later changed his stance and said that the constitution was first violated by Musharraf on October 12, 1999 and all those who endorsed the act should also be tried.
The announcements in the parliament and the Supreme Court sparked off a frenzied debate in the country, in which a few seemed to question if the government had made a firm commitment to try the former dictator or simply promised to follow the law.
However, there were a few hints from the government side that the issue was far from decided.
For instance, a government aide, on the condition of anonymity, tried to downplay the decision.
“The government of the day has the responsibility to follow the constitution and can’t pardon a person who has abrogated the constitution,” he said.
Similar views were expressed by Information Minister Senator Parvez Rashid, later on a television talk show.
He said the government had been asked to respond to a certain issue, and it had done so as per the constitution.