THE verdict in the treason case against retired Gen Pervez Musharraf marks a seismic shift in Pakistan’s history. It was thus far inconceivable that any military dictator this country has ever known would be convicted of high treason, as defined in Article 6 of the same Constitution that he had abrogated or held in abeyance.

After a trial that lasted nearly six years, the special court set up to hear the case has found the former army chief guilty of the offence; Mr Musharraf had suspended the Constitution on Nov 3, 2007, when he imposed emergency in the country.

In a decision announced on Tuesday, the bench awarded him the death penalty, with one judge dissenting. The reaction, as expected with an issue of such consequence and given the implications pertaining to institutional equilibrium, has ranged from exultation to outrage.

However, whether one agrees or not with a verdict that has — at the very least — huge symbolic significance for all concerned, some of the more excessive sentiments on display are troubling. After all, the bench that arrived at the decision was no inconsequential forum. It comprised three superior court judges who are part of the same judiciary often lauded for its resurgent independence, such as when it disqualified a sitting prime minister not too long ago.

Ironically, this sense of autonomy is often seen as having taken root in the very circumstances that led to Mr Musharraf imposing the emergency in 2007 — specifically, the legal challenges to his re-election as president that were being heard by the Supreme Court then.

Some might see this as the wheel having come full circle. Judicial independence cuts both ways, depending on where one is standing; therein lies its majesty. And while Dawn has always opposed the death penalty under any circumstances, this is hardly the end of the road for the former military dictator. There are legal remedies available to him as part of his constitutionally protected right to due process. His lawyers, and the PTI government, have already announced they will appeal the special court’s decision.

We may be in uncharted territory in terms of specifics, but this is yet another critical juncture for the one-step-forward-two-steps-back democratic process in this country.

The situation calls for restraint and sober reflection from all quarters rather than parochial chest-thumping. A court of law has held an individual accountable for his actions, which is as it should be; legal certainty and predictability in the administration of justice is necessary for a well-ordered society. The judgement has not smeared any institution; rather it affords an opportunity for the latter to distance itself from the extra-constitutional actions of an individual.

Fighting for one’s country does not preclude the commission of treachery. If that were so, two senior uniformed officials would not have been court-martialled and convicted on charges of espionage earlier this year.

Correction: This editorial has been amended after the release of the detailed judgement. The verdict was split 2-1 and not unanimous as written in the original text of the editorial.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2019



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