A HISTORIC day it was yesterday as for the first time ever a former army chief and military dictator stood before a judge and faced charges of violating the Constitution. Whether a trial of Pervez Musharraf under Article 6 of the Constitution will make it more difficult for future coup makers is an important question, but not the only one. Surely, if the Constitution is sacrosanct and the democratic will of the people is to be protected as a foundational value of the state, then a power grab in violation of the Constitution and democratic values ought to be punished, as stipulated by the Constitution itself. And while a court judgment alone is unlikely to deter a future dictator, the polity here has evolved and a trial could be the capstone of a new Pakistan in which coups are much more unlikely for a variety of reasons.
Now for the complications. As known to one and all, Mr Musharraf was indicted for the November 2007 Emergency that saw him try to extend his hold on power by ousting a superior judiciary that may have stood in the way of him gaining yet another term as president. But, as also known to one and all, nothing Mr Musharraf did on Nov 3, 2007 would have been possible if it were not for the fact that he had already overthrown the Constitution and grabbed power — back in October 1999. Trying the former dictator for actions that were only possible because of the original sin, the original coup, without so much as a mention of the original sin is problematic, and inadequate. Yes, the events of 1999 have gone through a far more complicated legal path and validation than the events of 2007, which were not sanctified by the courts or parliament, but there is a simple, undeniable fact that ought to hold: power was grabbed illegally in 1999 by Mr Musharraf under the same Constitution that he stands accused of violating in 2007. Furthermore, there must be questions asked about whether Mr Musharraf alone should face history’s judgment, or whether the many individuals whose collaboration was necessary for sanctifying and perpetuating Mr Musharraf’s rule ought to also face trial.
Nevertheless, a process is under way now and the immediate question is what will be its outcome. If indictment took far too long, a trial itself with Mr Musharraf inside the country is still far from a certainty. The will-he, won’t-he question has immediately taken centre stage: will Mr Musharraf be allowed to travel abroad, thereby reducing the likelihood of a return to Pakistan ever again, or won’t he be allowed to do so? For now, the matter appears to be the federal government’s to decide, but it is likely to seek direction from the Supreme Court first. The pre-trial circus may yet continue for a while.