Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pakistan-Trying the general

UNTIL a few days ago, the received wisdom on the fate of Pervez Musharraf was that Pakistan’s newly elected government would never dare prosecute the former coup leader for past misdeeds. True, prime minister Nawaz Sharif might wish to take revenge against the swaggering general who kicked him out of power in 1999 and sent him into eight years of exile. Mr Sharif, who made his political debut under a military dictator in the 1980s, also has the zeal of a convert when it comes to taming a military establishment that has meddled in state affairs throughout Pakistan’s history. Still, many thought it was simply inconceivable that the generals would tolerate one of their own being humiliated by a civilian court. One diplomat thought that a typically “Pakistani solution” would be found, perhaps using the failing health of Mr Musharraf’s elderly mother as an excuse to let him out of the country.

So there was much surprise when Mr Sharif rose in parliament on June 24th to announce the government would try Mr Musharraf for high treason. Only the government can initiate a trial for high treason. A special court must be established to try such cases. And the crime can result in the death penalty. He was responding to the Supreme Court which had been pestering his government since it took office over its stance on Mr Musharraf.

Since his ill-advised return in March from self-imposed exile to contest elections, which he was subsequently banned from doing, Mr Musharraf has been waylaid by three private prosecution attempts, including one that concentrated on his alleged involvement in the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister in 2007. There chances of these being successful were remote. Not so a high treason charge. It’s an “open and shut case,” according to Salman Raja, a constitutional lawyer, and many others in his profession. They argue that Mr Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule and suspension of the constitution in November 2007 amounts to treason, not least as the Supreme Court has already given a ruling to that effect.

The government says it will not try Mr Musharraf for the violence done to the constitution in 1999 when he seized power in a coup, possibly because his takeover was subsequently ratified by Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, currently the Chief Justice. These days things are less cordial between Mr Musharraf and Mr Chaudhry, one of the primary targets of the 2007 emergency.
The country’s main parties have all fallen into line in support of a trial. But if the legal wrangling grinds on, as seems likely, past the time of Mr Chaudhry’s retirement in December there may be an opportunity for the government to back away from prosecuting Mr Musharraf. That may prove welcome. There is a risk of the trial expanding to encompass people who currently hold leading positions in the army. Whatever his feelings towards the military, Mr Sharif needs them in the fight against Pakistan’s ever bolder militants: on June 10th foreign tourists were murdered in an isolated camp in the usually peaceful northern mountains. Banyan for The Economist

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