General Musharraf's trial

When General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s plane landed in Karachi on March 24, there were less than a thousand people, including the media, to receive him at the airport. It amply demonstrated how irrelevant Musharraf had become to Pakistani politics. He may have been a darling of the media, opportunist politicians and some members of the civil society when he first came to power after ousting Mian Nawaz Sharif’s government on October 12, 1999, but his popularity took a nosedive following the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the consequent Lawyers’ Movement. The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation alienated the conservatives while extremists and terrorists vowed revenge. Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan in August 2008, months after a democratically elected government took charge. He left the country soon after his resignation.

Now that he is back in Pakistan after spending more than four years in self-exile, everyone is wondering why he returned in the first place. Musharraf’s ambitions to run for parliament were thwarted by the courts soon after his return as his nomination papers were rejected from all four constituencies he had planned to contest elections from. A plethora of cases that were already pending against him, even before his return have turned out to be more than what the dictator bargained for.

During the election campaign, Mian Nawaz Sharif stated in some interviews that if the PML-N comes to power, it will try General Musharraf under Article 6 (high treason) of the constitution (the caretaker government had refused to try the General for treason, citing that it was beyond the interim setup’s mandate). Many believed it to be election rhetoric but last month Prime Minister Sharif announced before the National Assembly that the government would indeed put Musharraf on trial for treason.

Some analysts argue that Sharif was left with no choice but to go ahead with this trial because General Musharraf refused to leave the country despite being advised to do so by his friends, well-wishers and even the military. Apparently, the commando wants to face the courts and clear his name. While it is too early to say where this trial would eventually go, it would be the first time that a former military dictator is going to be tried for treason in Pakistan. There are different opinions on whether Musharraf should be tried alone or all those who aided and abetted his two coups (October 1999 coup and November 2007 emergency) should be tried alongside him.

Those arguing that it would open a Pandora’s Box vis-à-vis civil-military relations if Musharraf is tried are way off the mark. It might be adventurous of the PML-N to take on the army right away but to let this opportunity go by without setting a precedent itself would be wrong. The civilians need to reclaim their space from the armed forces incrementally and step by step without creating any insecurity in the rank and file of the army. It has to be calibrated in such a way that it creates no tensions between the civilians and the military.

Musharraf’s trial is certainly not going to lead to any execution but form is as important as the content. We have to go through this ritual as part of our democratic transition. Civilian supremacy is not going to be dropped in our laps like manna from heaven. For this, the rules of the game have to be set and then followed. The rules of democracy vary from country to country; they change according to the situation within one country as well.

From guided democracies to basic democracies, from socialist democracies to welfare democracies, the rules may vary but the dominant factor is the supremacy of civilians. In a country like Pakistan where the exact opposite is true, the civil-military imbalance cannot come through a revolution. It will only come through evolution. Musharraf’s trial is symbolic — it is as good an attempt as any to tilt the balance in favour of the civilians.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)


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