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Asia

Musharraf's indictment 'divisive' for Pakistan

A Pakistani court has indicted former military dictator Pervez Musharraf for treason relating to his imposition of emergency rule in 2007. Experts say the ruling is likely to further polarize Pakistan.

For the first time in Pakistan's history, a military general has been nationally indicted for treason. The three-member special tribunal's Monday ruling - which charged former President Pervez Musharraf on five counts relating to imposition of emergency rule in 2007 - did not come as a surprise. The supreme court also ordered Musharraf's arrest if he did not appear at Monday's hearing.

In November last year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's center-right government submitted a petition in the Supreme Court seeking trial of the former president and his subordinate generals for declaring a state of emergency and suspending the constitution at the end of his eight-year authoritarian rule from 1999 to 2008.

Musharraf, who had complained of chest problems in January and has been recuperating at a military hospital in Rawalpindi, said on Monday (31.03.2014) that he came to the court against his medical team's advice. Musharraf's aides have been requesting that the former military man be allowed to leave the country for medical treatment. The tribunal rejected that petition on Monday.

Pakistani supporter of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf shout slogans as they hold banners with images of Musharraf outside a special court set up to try Musharraf during a hearing in Islamabad on March 11, 2014 (Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Musharraf's supporters say the courts are biased

The ex-general's legal team has also repeatedly requested the court to exempt their client from court appearances due to security risks. The Taliban and al Qaeda have openly vowed to kill Musharraf, who in 2001 forged an alliance with the United States in the "war on terror."

"I honor this court and prosecution. I strongly believe in law and don't have ego problems. I have appeared in court 16 times in a year in Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi," the 70-year-old told the court in a 30-minute-long defense of his time in office.

"I am being called a traitor. I was army chief for nine years and served the military for 45 years, during which I also fought two wars. Is that treason?" said an emotional general.

If convicted, Musharraf could face the death penalty - but observers doubt the trial would ever get that far.

A divisive trial

Musharraf's supporters believe that the charges laid against their leader are baseless. They also allege that Sharif has a personal vendetta against their leader.

"We not only forcefully reject these charges, but also view them as a vicious attempt to undermine the Pakistan military," said Raza Bokhari, a Musharraf spokesman, in a statement. "It is also a botched attempt by the government to temporarily take the focus away from existential threats faced by Pakistan."

Others think that the trial is necessary to set a precedent and minimize the role of the army in politics. Ahsanuddin Sheikh, one of the applicants in the treason case against Musharraf, told DW that the high court should punish the former president so that "no dictator would dare to break the constitution in future."

However, veteran Pakistani rights activist Karamat Ali told DW in an interview that all those in government at the time when Musharraf declared the state of emergency should face a fair trial.

"Musharraf was the army chief at that time, but he represented an institution which was also involved in the whole affair. The military as an institution should be tried," Ali said. The activist also thinks that the Musharraf case is legally "weak," and cannot hold up in court. He added that Musharraf should not flee the country on health pretexts.

Pakistan's former President Pervez Musharraf (L) leaves after his appearance before the High Court in Rawalpindi April 17, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

The Taliban have put a price on Musharraf's head

Support for Musharraf

The general became a target of ire for Islamist groups when he allied with the US in its "war on terror" and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - but he has loyal supporters in Pakistan, as well. They say that during Musharraf's time in power, Pakistan's economy prospered and enjoyed better security. In the southern port city of Karachi, which is also the "financial capital" of Pakistan, many among the educated and liberal are nostalgic about Musharraf's rule.

"Musharraf was a much better leader than Zardari and Sharif," Syed Meer, an entrepreneur in Karachi, told DW. "There was more investment in his era, and our businesses were flourishing. There was no energy crisis," Meer said. "I know he was a dictator, but what is the use of this democracy when people have no jobs and nothing to eat?"

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (R) flashes a victory sign as his brother Shabaz Sharif (L) looks on at a polling station in Lahore on February 18, 2008 (Photo: arifali/AFP/Getty Images)

Sharif says he has no personal grudge against Musharraf

Some also believe that Musharraf is being punished for standing up against Islamist extremists - whereas Sharif and the Pakistani courts are rather pursing an appeasement policy toward the Taliban.

"I am supposed to believe that Musharraf is a traitor for abrogating the constitution, and deserves imprisonment, but that the Taliban and other extremists are not, and that we should engage in peace talks with them," wrote Amima Sayeed, a development expert and Musharraf supporter, on Facebook.

Musharraf's admirers also accuse Sharif's government of trying to divert people's attention from more pressing issues the country is facing, such as inflation, the energy crisis, unemployment and terrorism. "The court ruling will only divide Pakistan more," said Meer.