Musharraf’s high-treason trial history being made
A special court is expected to announce its verdict in the high treason case against former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf on Dec. 17 after hearing the arguments of the government’s new prosecution team. This case has all the ingredients of high drama with far-reaching political consequences.
The conviction of a former army chief in a country where the military remains a formidable force casting its shadow over politics will have serious ramifications. The former military ruler could be sentenced to death or imprisonment for life, if found guilty. For most observers, such a possibility remains remote given the fact that the prosecution is not interested in pursuing the case.
The Islamabad High Court on Nov. 27 had stopped the special court from issuing the verdict it had earlier reserved after the government decided to sack the entire prosecution team engaged by the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government.
The high treason trial of the former military dictator which was brought on because he declared a state of emergency on Nov 3, 2007, has been pending since December 2013. Musharraf was indicted on March 31, 2014, but due to litigation at appellate forums, the trial lingered on and he left Pakistan in March 2016.
A major factor in the dragging on of the case has been the resistance from the military against its former chief being charged for treason. General Musharraf did not appear before the court despite repeated summons. His defense lawyers said he was unable to travel to Pakistan because of a serious health condition, but the special court has declared him an absconder.
General Musharraf took power on Oct. 12, 1999 in a coup that ousted Nawaz Sharif’s government. He stepped down as president on August 18, 2008 under the threat of impeachment by the elected civilian government installed after the general elections that year. Interestingly, the treason case was filed more than five years after Musharraf’s exit from power.
For former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it was seen to be an opportunity to settle scores with a man who not only deposed him but also put him on trial for sedition. There’s certainly a revenge aspect to the decision to initiate the treason trial, though the government maintained that it only complied with the Supreme Court ruling.
It is evident from the manner in which the treason trial proceeded that the government is least interested in getting the former general prosecuted
Nevertheless, a former military strongman being put in the dock for treason in a country, which has been under dictatorships for most of its existence, is very significant. The trial of Gen. Musharraf was a landmark development in many ways. Many Pakistani political leaders have faced treason charges, but this is the first time that a former head of state is being tried under Article 6 of the Constitution.
But the former military ruler is being tried not for his ‘original sin’ of staging a coup against an elected government, but instead for imposing an emergency and holding the Constitution in abeyance in 2007. The main argument for not charging Musharraf for the coup is that the Supreme Court and parliament indemnified his action. But the question is, does the 2007 action alone provide sufficient grounds for his conviction under Article 6, ignoring the original takeover.
Some senior lawyers argue that the term ‘abeyance’ was added to Article 6 by the 18th Amendment and thus cannot be applied retrospectively. Before the amendment, Article 6 mentioned only the terms ‘abrogation’ and ‘subversion’ of the constitution. Legal experts argue there was no point in introducing the new word ‘abeyance’ as the word ‘subversion’ already covered its meaning, and the amendment has inadvertently benefited Musharraf.
General Musharraf has denied that he has committed any treason. He has also been implicated in other cases including the Lal Masjid operation. A court has ordered the confiscation of all his properties and frozen his bank accounts. Recently, he gave interviews to a couple of private television channels appearing his usual confident self.
But what could be the worst-case scenario? Conviction? Doubtful. The humiliation of their former chief has already perturbed the military and many observers believe that conviction could result in a strong reaction by the army. The military leadership seems to have distanced itself from the trial, but that's not really the case.
It is evident from the manner in which the treason trial proceeded that the government is least interested in getting the former general prosecuted. One of the reasons is certainly that it does not want to annoy the military whose support is imperative for the government’s survival.
- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.