Retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s desperation to take possibly his last flight out of the country has been increasing ever since the Sindh High Court ordered the removal of the over 14-month-old travel ban on him but gave the federal government 15 days to appeal its decision before the apex court.
The former military ruler has already requested the interior ministry to let him fly to Dubai, in view of the judgment, to visit his ailing mother and have his back treated. His lawyers have also filed a review petition with the Sindh High Court, seeking reduction in the number of days given to the government for appeal to three.
The general’s desperation is understandable. He is the first dictator facing the death penalty in a treason case — not for his ‘original sin’ but for imposing emergency on Nov 3, 2007 that led to the suspension of the Constitution, and the dismissal and detention of superior court judges. He is also facing charges in the Benazir Bhutto and Akbar Bugti killings as well as in other cases since his return to Pakistan to lead his party in last year’s elections.
His opponents fear that once out, he will not return home to face the cases. Hence, they want him to remain on the Exit Control List. His supporters scoff at this argument. “How can someone be restricted from travelling if he is neither convicted nor has detention orders against him? You can’t deny a person the fundamental right of movement because you think he’ll run away; the law does not work on presumptions,” notes one of his lawyers Chaudhry Faisal Hussain.
Both the courts and the government know this. Yet neither is ready to go soft on the dictator. Many insist it is one of those cases where nobody wants to accept responsibility because it involves a former army chief, and believe that the court judgment only confirms this.
The interior ministry has twice rejected Musharraf’s request to allow him to travel abroad, saying it is a decision for the courts. In December last, the Sindh High Court had directed him to contact the appropriate forum — the government — to get the ban lifted. “It’s like ping-pong,” says Hussain. “Nobody is willing to take responsibility [of letting Musharraf off the hook]. It shows the weaker side of the judiciary and the government both.”
Lawyers such as Tariq Mahmood, a former judge, agree. “There’s a lot of pressure on the courts from the ‘outside’... otherwise there’s no reason to put him on the ECL.” He went so far as to blame the apex court and the TV talk shows for bringing immense pressure on the interim government to put restrictions on the former general.
And this is precisely what political commentators like Hasan Askari Rizvi say of Nawaz Sharif’s dilemma. “If he doesn’t challenge the high court’s order, Nawaz Sharif will risk facing embarrassment. His political adversaries will try to exploit it. If he goes for an appeal or places new restrictions on Musharraf it could mean confrontation with the military, which wants the matter closed,” he argues.
Askari feels the premier is in a “difficult and problematic” situation. “How he handles it will largely influence his political future [as the issue has already soured his government’s ties with the military].”
Some believe that Nawaz Sharif has already done a deal with the military to allow the general who toppled his second government to leave the country. However, he wants the courts to lift the ban on him because of public and media pressure. His departure will remove a major source of the government’s friction with the powerful military establishment and let it focus on more pressing issues like the economy, energy and militancy.
But government ministers including Khawaja Asif and Saad Rafique deny any compromise. The risks of further straining ties with the military notwithstanding, there are indications the government would rather challenge the order than appear to have struck a deal with the military. The statements of the ministers testify to this.
“I think the government will try and stretch the issue as far as it is possible,” says Mohammad Waseem, a Lahore University of Management Sciences professor. But he considers the cases against Musharraf just an irritant in civil-military relations. “Both the government and the military know that nothing is going to happen to him. The judiciary too has been very accommodating vis-à-vis the former military ruler. I don’t see the issue straining civil-military relations.”
There’s almost a broad consensus that the apex court’s review will determine the entire course of cases against Musharraf if Sharif decides to approach it for the reversal of the Sindh High Court decision.
Waseem doesn’t think the Supreme Court has any option but to strike down the order. “The apex court had prompted the government to institute the [treason] case against him and it knows if the ban is lifted he will leave for good. Both the government and the judiciary will try to stretch the case against him.”
Musharraf’s counsel Hussain views it differently. “If the Supreme Court sets aside the high court’s decision, it will put a big question mark on its impartiality.”
In either case, it will again be for the apex court to rule whether Musharraf’s flight is to be delayed a little longer or cancelled. And the status of his flight will determine, even if to a limited extent, how government-military ties shape up.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2014