Former President Pervez Musharraf is now on the run after a Pakistani court ordered his arrest. But will the mighty Pakistani army allow its former head to be arrested?
"Don't push us. It is not the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won't even know what hit you." The former Pakistani president and military chief made these remarks in 2006 as a warning to Baloch separatists and their leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. Soon after, the general really came down hard on the separatists and Bugti was killed in a military operation. Baloch nationalists claim that Bugti - who had been hiding in a mountain - was hit by a military rocket, an accusation Musharraf denies.
But now, seven years later, it seems that the tables have turned on the general. Musharraf - once the most powerful man in Pakistan - is now on the run himself and currently "hiding" in his farmhouse in one of Islamabad's posh suburbs after a court in Pakistan ordered his arrest on Thursday, April 18. The arrest order relates to treason charges from 2007.
The general ruled the Islamic Republic dictatorially for eight years and was considered to be one of the most important US allies in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Musharraf ousted former PM and popular Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless military coup in 1999. He received the ire of religious groups for becoming an ally of the US in its "war on terror" and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. A popular leader with many Pakistani liberals, the general faces death threats from the Taliban and other Islamists, with whom he dealt with an iron hand during his eight years of dictatorial rule. He also has a bounty on his head, which was placed there by the son of Bugti.
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.
He returned to Pakistan from Dubai on March 24 this year with the sole purpose of contesting parliamentary elections, which will be held on May 11. But to the general's dismay, the Election Commission of Pakistan rejected his nomination papers on April 16, and disqualified him from taking part in elections, as a number of cases are pending against him in courts, including one in which he is implicated for the murder of former Premier Benazir Bhutto.
But his arrest orders came to many as a surprise.
Musharraf had managed to get his bail approved after landing in Karachi. He got it extended earlier this month and was hoping to get another extension. But the Islamabad High Court dismissed his appeal and ordered his arrest, after which the general fled the court's premises.
According to Pakistani media reports, the general left the scene unperturbed under protection of his commandos and security personnel which have been provided to him by the Pakistani military and the government.
"Those who were supposed to arrest Musharraf are guarding him," Pakistani writer and activist Masood Qamar told DW.
Members of Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League Party said that the general's lawyers were trying to get protective bail from the Supreme Court to avoid his possible arrest.
US-based Human Rights Watch called on Pakistani military authorities to ensure Musharraf's arrest in the light of the court's order. It also criticized the general for not presenting himself for an arrest after his bail was canceled, thus undermining the rule of law.
"General Musharraf's act underscores his disregard for due legal process and indicates his assumption that as a former army chief and military dictator he can evade accountability for abuses," Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch's Pakistan director, said in a statement on Thursday.
"Continued military protection for General Musharraf will make a mockery of claims that Pakistan's armed forces support the rule of law and bring the military further disrepute that it can ill afford."
The clash of institutions
Political activists and commentators say that the powerful Pakistani army - who many think calls the shots in Pakistan - will not allow its former head to be jailed.
"Musharraf still represents the army. The military commanders won't let this [his arrest] happen. It is but a test and a defining moment for Pakistan, its army and the judicial system. We will see if a general can also be arrested," Talat Bhat, a Sweden-based Kashmiri political activist told DW.
Pro-democracy activists say that if Musharraf were a civilian leader, he would have been arrested immediately. Who would arrest a general in Pakistan, they ask?
But Miqteda Mansoor, a columnist in Karachi, believes that the power dynamics in Pakistan are changing.
"The judiciary has emerged as a powerful institution in the last five years," Mansoor told DW. He, however, thinks that Musharraf's arrest orders have been issued out of "revenge" by the judiciary.
"There should be proper trial and if he is convicted he should be arrested."
Mansoor thought that in the present circumstances, the May 11 parliamentary elections could well be postponed. But even if they did take place on time, he did not see political stability returning to Pakistan any time soon.