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The longer shadow Musharraf’s trial

June 26, 2013

SOMEHOW, when it comes to the army’s political transgressions and holding its leadership accountable for its sins against the nation, the arguments against doing so are quickly and furiously proffered. Somehow, it is never the right time, there is always something more important to be attended to first or there is encouragement to let bygones be bygones. But beyond the self-serving claims, there is a very real need for a reckoning with the past. Now, the country may finally be inching towards the ultimate reckoning: putting a military dictator on trial for his crimes against the Constitution and the people of Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, there are more questions than answers at the moment. How much pressure will the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry put on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government to see the judges’ tormentor — former army chief Pervez Musharraf — put on trial? How will the present army leadership respond to the trial of a former army chief with the selection of the next army chief on the horizon? Beyond his self-proclaimed desire to move on and strengthen democracy, does Mr Sharif still harbour a grudge that will be hard to suppress now that the opportunity to have Mr Musharraf punished has presented itself?

If there is one thing that is clear, however, it is the time frame that should be under consideration when revisiting the Musharraf era: the November 2007 emergency was not the original sin; in fact, it was only possible because of what is actually the original sin — October 1999. And in that original episode were involved a whole range of actors, both in its planning and execution and its judicial validation soon thereafter. For then-Gen Musharraf to have been able to circumvent the Constitution and install himself as Pakistan’s ruler, the cooperation of many other individuals was required — a fact that is key to both understanding the basis of military rule and shutting down the route to future extra-constitutional adventures. By going beyond just Mr Musharraf and also seeking to hold other key players to account, the process will necessarily transcend the sense of vendetta or revenge and shift the focus to democracy strengthening.

That necessarily raises the question of why there has been no clarity about whether the events of 1999 are in fact part of the proceedings that Prime Minister Sharif has now said his government will support. In some quarters, the argument has been made that the events of 1999 were given parliamentary cover by the parliament elected in 2002 and so that is a closed chapter, even if the last parliament retrospectively undid that approval. But then the 2007 emergency has perhaps the most authoritative judgement of the Supreme Court itself that laid bare all the relevant episodes of that fact, and a trial of Mr Musharraf is unlikely to yield anything ground-breaking in terms of facts or evidence. Then again, if it’s simply a case of bringing to justice the individual held responsible for November 2007, there is another Supreme Court judgement regarding the 1990 election which also requests the government to proceed against those the court has found involved in stealing an election — and that happens to include the present prime minister, Mr Sharif. It appears, then, that everyone is proceeding with caution, fearful of the skeletons in their own closets and worried what a trial of a dictator with nothing to lose may unleash.

Still, complexity and uncertain outcomes and reactions ought not to be reason enough to ultimately baulk at holding individuals accountable for their crimes against the Constitution and, by extension, against the people of Pakistan. In truth, the most difficult tasks are also the most important, but buried within that reason is also the explanation for why they must be attempted. In five years since Mr Musharraf’s exit, the transition to democracy has passed major and historic milestones. There is no reason to flinch from examining the past anymore.