FOUR military dictators have come and gone but never before has one been summoned to court to answer for his crimes against the Constitution. Pervez Musharraf may not have been in court yesterday but his determination to return to Pakistan and participate in the upcoming elections has already triggered events that could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s latest attempt to entrench democratic norms. Essential here, more than ever, is that justice be done and also be seen to be done. The chief justice recusing himself from the hearings was a welcome first step given how the ex-military strongman targeted Chief Justice Chaudhry personally. Another good sign was that the two-member bench that began hearings yesterday demonstrated no undue haste or eagerness to see Gen Musharraf behind bars or gratuitously humiliated. The ex-president and dictator may have shown enormous contempt for the Constitution and democratic process but the majesty of that very system requires that he be treated fairly and lawfully.
As the proceedings continue in the weeks ahead, it is essential that the focus not remain on simply the events of 2007, when the then-president targeted the judiciary in an attempt to ensure he could continue in power for a third term. The original sin of Gen Musharraf occurred in 1999 when he ousted the elected government of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif who had attempted to sack his army chief — an ill-advised move that was nevertheless Mr Sharif’s political and legal right. In that episode, Gen Musharraf far from acted alone and history is yet to reveal who the protagonists were and what role each individual played. Similarly, in the continuation of Gen Musharraf’s patently unconstitutional role — first in the form of the three-year window given to him until 2002 by his handpicked Supreme Court and then in manipulating the parliamentary process until 2007 — there are many, many figures involved, and each of them has much to answer for.
If handled correctly, a trial of Gen Musharraf can help the country and its polity come to terms with the many anti-democratic chapters of its history. That the opportunity has arisen at a moment the country is preparing for an unprecedented, civilian-led transition is one of those quirks of history. Ultimately, for the democratic project to become irreversible, state and society will have to internalise democratic norms — and here is a moment to both reconcile with the past and set a precedent for the future.