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Not this way

April 06, 2014


RULE of law. Slamming the door shut on future coups. Righting wrongs of the past. Upholding the Constitution. Democracy! Rubbish.

Musharraf shouldn’t be tried. Not for what he’s been charged with. And not for the reasons he’s being tried.

Forget all that nonsense the Saad Rafiques of this world are spouting. Musharraf is being tried for two reasons. One, the guy he chucked out is back in power. Two, a Musharrraf trial is politically advantageous.

Advantageous because both left and right have their reasons to hate Musharraf: left because of the BB assassination, right because of Lal Masjid and the war on terror.

To neither side does it matter what Musharraf is actually being tried for. It’s a bit like that business with Shakil Afridi: everyone knows why he’s in jail; no one cares what he’s actually been convicted for.

But let’s have a look at what Musharraf has been charged with. Essentially, to try and hang on as president, he chucked out a bunch of judges and put a few of them under house arrest in November 2007.

Within a month, he had to give up his uniform. Within three months of that, he suffered a crushing electoral defeat. Six months later, he lost his presidency.

So, we want to either chuck Musharraf in jail for life or sentence him to death by hanging for sending home a bunch of judges — the biggest of whom got his job back, remember — and putting a few of those judges under house arrest for a few days?

Yes, they are screaming and yelling, it’s the principle that matters. He overthrew the Constitution.

OK, let’s work with that for a minute.

Everything — everything — that Musharraf did in November 2007 was only possible because he had already grabbed power in October 1999.

Nothing — nothing — that he stands accused of would have been possible if he was not already in power in November 2007.

There’s an original sin here: October 1999.

If it’s a principle at stake, that overthrowing the Constitution is unacceptable, then it’s 1999 that Musharraf should be on trial for.

Ah, but then the excuses start trickling out. Well, 1999 is complicated because the Supreme Court validated the coup and parliament ratified it by amending the Constitution later.

It’s an interesting argument. Interesting because it suggests that there are circumstances in which a coup can be validated. And that ’99 is different from ’07 because ’07 was validated neither by the courts nor parliament.

But then, what exactly is the principle here? That Musharraf got away with 1999 but didn’t get away with 2007? So chuck him in jail or hang him for trying and failing to do again the thing he once tried and succeeded in doing?

That doesn’t sound like much of a principle worth defending, or even much of a principle at all.

If coups are unconstitutional, then coups are unconstitutional. If that’s the position, if that’s the principle, then it really can’t be argued that 1999 is more complicated than 2007.

And yet, here we are with an indictment for just the lesser sin.

Since apparently context does matter, let’s also have a look at the immediate context.

At the very moment Musharraf stands indicted and folk are exulting the rule of law, the government that has had Musharraf indicted is dialoguing with the TTP.

Let’s remind ourselves about the TTP and what it stands for. The TTP is explicitly fighting for the violent overthrow of the Pakistani state and the installation of an explicitly undemocratic mode of governance rooted in an explicitly narrow and intolerant version of Islam.

If that isn’t treason, then what is? Chucking out a bunch of judges and immediately losing your uniform, your job and your government as well?

The rule of law — a phrase used far more than it is understood — doesn’t work in isolation. It cannot be strengthened selectively. You don’t get rule of law by sending Musharraf to jail and rewarding the TTP with freedom. Really, you don’t.

OK, but everyone already knows this is about politics.

Musharraf’s trial is a political decision made on political grounds by a political prime minister.

But there’s also a political reason to oppose this trial on these charges in this context.

Say Nawaz stands firm. He overrules the army, he has Musharraf convicted and he sends to jail the man who once sent him to jail.

Don’t for a second think that isn’t a possibility; it is. Nawaz, if he really, really wants to, really, really can get his way on this.

But here’s the problem, the political one: do we want to be in that political world just now where Nawaz can have Musharraf convicted and sent to jail over the objections of the army?

Already, a bigger picture is emerging of Nawaz as an unreconstructed politician. Wherever he’s had the chance, he’s shown us the old Nawaz. The same policies, the same ideas, the same tendency to choose self-interest over national urgencies. The only thing that we haven’t seen yet is the arrogance — but, if the rest is starting to look like same ol’, same ol’, then surely that’s just a matter of time.

Nawaz has no opposition to deal with. He’s got a moderate chief justice. He has a handpicked army chief. He’ll soon have a new DG ISI. If he gets Musharraf, he’ll have triumphed over the army too.

Do we really want Nawaz to start to believe he’s all-powerful once again?

Remember what happened the last time he convinced himself of that?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm