Former Pakistani military ruler Musharraf is on the Taliban hit list. The postponement of his treason trial over bomb threat fears has once again exposed the risks that PM Sharif is taking in trying the general.
A court in Pakistan has adjourned the treason trial of former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf until January 1. The delay follows security concerns ahead of the trial, which Musharraf says is politically motivated.
Musharraf is Pakistan’s first former military chief to face such a trial; in 2007, he declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution at the end of his authoritarian rule.
The 70-year-old ex president and army chief, who ruled the country from 1999 to 2008, was expected to appear in person before a special tribunal in the capital Islamabad on Tuesday, December 24.
As the court was preparing for the hearing, police said they discovered five kilograms of explosive material near the road along which Musharraf had been scheduled to travel to court.
Last month, the Pakistani government submitted a petition in the apex court seeking the trial of the former president and his subordinate generals under Article 6 of the Pakistani constitution. If convicted, Musharraf could face the death penalty or life in prison.
Cases against the general
In November, an Islamabad district court allowed the 70-year-old bail over a deadly raid on a radical mosque in the capital in 2007, the last of the charges against Musharraf dating back to his rule. Musharraf has faced charges over the murder of former PM Benazir Bhuttoat an election rally in 2007, the death of a Akbar Bugti, a Baloch rebel leader in 2006, and the detention of judges in 2007. He had already received bail for those cases. Musharraf is, however, still banned from leaving the country.
The general ruled the Islamic Republic with an iron fist for over eight years and was considered to be one of the most important US allies in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both the al Qaeda and the Taliban have vowed to kill Musharraf. Baloch rebels have also put a bounty on his head.
Musharraf ousted the incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless military coup in 1999. When the elected government led by Yousuf Raza Gilani came to power in 2008, and Musharraf was impeached, he went into self-imposed exile for five years. Musharraf returned to Pakistan from Dubai on March 24 this year with the sole purpose of contesting May 11 parliamentary elections. But to the general's dismay, the Election Commission of Pakistan disqualified him from taking part in elections, as a number of cases were pending against him in courts.
'Embarrassment' for the military
Raza Bokhari, a Musharraf spokesman, lashed out at the government's move to put Musharraf on trial, saying it was an attempt to embarrass the army.
"We not only forcefully reject these charges, but also view them as a vicious attempt to undermine the Pakistan military," Bokhari said in a statement. "It is also a botched attempt by the government to temporarily take the focus away from existential threats faced by Pakistan."
Experts say that the military is indeed "embarrassed."
Karachi-based defense and political analyst Ali K. Chishti told DW that Pakistani generals were "unhappy" with the developments.
"The military is not happy and is watching the developments very cautiously. I spoke to some serving generals and they said they found the situation extremely embarrassing for their institution. The Pakistani army does not want to see their former chief behind the bars," Chishti said.
Critics say that Musharraf, even after his arrest, got "privileged" treatment because of his military background. Had he been a civilian politician, he would not have received bail on such high-profile cases that soon, they say.
Sharif's Muslim League party says that the latest move has nothing to do with Sharif's "personal vendetta" against Musharraf, but experts believe Sharif has taken a collision path with the army.
For those who want to see the supremacy of civilian rule in a country where the military generals have collectively ruled more than thirty years, Musharraf's treason trial could set a precedence.
Ahsanuddin Sheikh, one of the applicants in the treason case against Musharraf, told DW that the apex court should try and punish the former president so that "no dictator would dare to break the constitution in future."
Legal experts, however, say that the treason trial against Musharraf could "open a Pandora box," as it involves a number of retired and serving military officers and civil bureaucrats.
"Musharraf still represents the army. The military commanders won't let him be convicted," Talat Bhat, a Sweden-based Kashmiri political activist told DW. "It is but a test for democracy and a defining moment for Pakistan, its army and the judicial system."
The general received the ire of Islamist groups for becoming an ally of the US in its "war on terror" and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 but he has loyal supporters in Pakistan too. They say that during Musharraf's time in power, Pakistan's economy prospered and the security situation was better than now. In the southern port city of Karachi, which is also the financial capital of Pakistan, a lot of educated and liberal people 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. I know he was a dictator, but what is the use of this democracy when people have no jobs and nothing to eat," he questioned.
Musharraf's supporters also say that the latest move by PM Sharif's government is an attempt to divert people's attention from more pressing issues the country is facing, such as inflation, energy crisis, unemployment, and terrorism.