The fact that former ruler Pervez Musharraf could leave Pakistan despite serious cases against him proves the army considers itself above the law, experts say. An opportunity to assert civilian supremacy has been lost.
Considering the nature of the cases against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, it should not have been that easy for him to leave the country on Friday to seek medical treatment abroad.
The former president is facing multiple charges in Pakistani courts, including treason, and accusations that he was involved in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But the general has arrived safely in Dubai, where he will now get urgent medical treatment not available in Pakistan, as claimed by his lawyers and the Pakistani government.
"I am going abroad for treatment but will return to face the cases against me," a spokesman for Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League party quoted him as saying.
But most Pakistan observers doubt the ex-dictator will return anytime soon. Analysts have also questioned the decision by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government to take Musharraf's name out of an "exit control list," making his departure from the country possible.
Musharraf's travel ban, imposed on him in March 2013, was recently lifted by Pakistan's Supreme Court, but Sharif's administration had the constitutional power to reimpose it.
"The court had ruled that the decision to impose or lift the ban on Musharraf would ultimately be decided by the central government. Therefore, it was Sharif's decision and responsibility," Kamran Murtaza, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told DW.
But analysts say it all comes down to the fact that Musharraf was a former military chief, and it was just a matter of time before he would be sent abroad.
"The military does not want to set a precedent where its officers are held accountable by the civilians," Usman Qazi, an Islamabad-based UN adviser, told DW.
Qazi suggested that Sharif could not resist the military's pressure any longer, as his government had been weakened by its response to terrorism and opposition protests over the past few years.
Cases against Musharraf
Musharraf ousted the incumbent Prime Minister Sharif in a bloodless military coup in 1999. When Musharraf was impeached and the elected government led by Yousuf Raza Gilani came to power in 2008, he went into self-imposed exile for five years.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan from Dubai in March 2013 for the sole purpose of contesting the parliamentary election in May. But to the general's dismay, the Election Commission of Pakistan disqualified him from taking part, as a number of cases were pending against him in courts.
In November, an Islamabad district court granted the 72-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 also faces charges over his alleged involvement in Bhutto's murder at an election rally in 2007, the death of Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti in 2006, and the detention of judges in 2007. He had already received bail for those cases. Musharraf, however, was still banned from leaving the country.
The general had ruled the Islamic Republic with an iron fist for more than 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 al Qaeda and the Taliban have vowed to kill Musharraf. Baloch rebels have also put a bounty on his head.
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 courts 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," said Ali, who works for PILER, a nongovernmental research institute.
The activist also thinks that the Musharraf case is legally "weak" and cannot hold up in court.
Pakistan's real rulers
The lifting of the travel ban, many experts say, is a sign that Sharif's government does not want to irk the country's powerful military generals any longer by detaining their former chief. Musharraf's lawyer, Farogh Naseem, agrees.
"It is quite clear that the leadership of the Pakistani army and security agencies have been supporting Musharraf wholeheartedly. They back him because he was their chief," he said.
But Naseem has insisted that Musharraf is innocent. "Musharraf has no corruption charges pressed against him - a fact that has also been acknowledged by the courts. The military probably feels that its former head, who served the country with honesty and devotion, is being unnecessarily maligned. But this is my analysis - the military leadership has not conveyed this to me," Naseem told DW.
Karachi-based defense and political analyst Ali K. Chishti said Pakistani generals were "unhappy" with the developments.
"The military was not happy and was 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.