Nawaz Sharif has announced his intention to press treason charges against Pervez Musharraf. This decision, as is often the case with anything involving the former president and army chief, has triggered a passionate response.
Many observers, including Dawn’s editorial board, regard a treason trial as proper justice for a leader who launched a coup and suspended Pakistan’s Constitution (among other crimes). It’s also viewed as another encouraging sign for democracy in a country tainted by years of military rule.
Others, however, lament how Pakistan’s new premier is prioritising his personal vendettas over the immediate needs of the nation. With a free-falling economy, up to 20 hours of daily energy shortages, and incessant militancy, many observers believe this is no time for revenge politics.
These arguments all have their merits. Yet, I wonder if we’re jumping the gun. After all, Musharraf’s trial may not even take place.
There are several reasons why. First, Sharif said he would consult with other political parties before pressing formal charges of treason. Several parties offered initial pledges of support, but according to a report, Musharraf's aide now claims that representatives of opposition have vowed to extend their support to Musharraf “at the right time.”
Sharif may be reluctant to proceed if he doesn’t get buy-in from key parties. This is because bipartisan support, and something resembling political consensus, will best reduce the possibility of pushback from the military.
Second, the PML-N has decided to embrace a “go-slow policy,” suggesting it may wait to pursue the case until it has addressed the country’s pressing economic and energy crises. If that happens, the government won’t be ready to proceed until later this year — at which time the composition of the judiciary may be different from what it is today. Momentum for a trial could ebb considerably with the passage of time.
Third, if a trial does eventually go forward, it could prove nearly as damaging to the new government as it does to Musharraf. The ex-president’s legal advisers have argued that a case against Musharraf would also need to target the military officials, judges, and MNAs who worked with him. Indeed, a clause in Article 6 of the Constitution stipulates that those helping anyone accused of subverting the Constitution be held accountable as well.
Though it would certainly be displeased, the military may not stand in the way if Musharraf alone is put on trial; according to some reports, Sharif actually received approval from Ashfaq Parvez Kayani before announcing his plan to press charges against Musharraf.
Yet if other Army personnel are targeted, military pushback against the government could ensue — with troubling implications for the civil-military balance that Sharif fervently wants to recalibrate so that it’s weighted in his favor.
And then there’s the issue of security. Militants are itching to assassinate Musharraf, and his courtroom visits could offer tantalising opportunities. However, others would face threats too — including the prosecution. Recall the tragic fate of Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, the chief prosecutor in the case involving Musharraf’s possible role in the Benazir Bhutto assassination. In early May, he was gunned down in Islamabad.
To be sure, these factors won’t necessarily stop the government. Islamabad could push forward and assume that Pakistan’s activist courts and increasingly robust democratic institutions will fend off any machinations of the military — the most formidable potential source of resistance to a trial.
Alternately, there could be an externally mediated grand bargain. The government could press formal charges against Musharraf, and bring the nation to the cusp of a trial. Then, at the final hour, a deal could be struck between Islamabad, the army, and an outside arbiter that sends Musharraf into exile. Given its close ties to the Sharif-led government, Musharraf, and GHQ, that arbiter would likely be Saudi Arabia — which reportedly has no desire to see the former leader in the dock.
Rumors of Riyadh intervening on Musharraf’s legal behalf are frequently heard; they surfaced as far back as 2009, and just in the last few weeks the PML-Q’s Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain spoke of a “secret deal.”
Of course, this all sounds familiar — Sharif was himself spirited off to exile in Saudi Arabia after Musharraf’s 1999 coup landed the premier in prison.
The present government may conclude that this time it’s worth having history repeat itself. Islamabad may decide that the messiness, uncertainties, and dangers of convening an unprecedented treason trial for a former president and army chief outweigh the many advantages of convening one. Exiling Musharraf could be regarded as the best option.
Then again, this all amounts to pure speculation. Ultimately, Musharraf’s legal fate — as with so much else in these early weeks of Sharif’s third term — is fraught with uncertainty.