Pakistan

Special Court in Pakistan finds Musharraf guilty of high treason

Print edition : January 18, 2020

November 1, 1999: Musharraf during the first press conference after his military coup in Islamabad. Photo: SAEED KHAN/AFP

Supporters of Pervez Musharraf protest the death sentence, in Lahore on December 20. Photo: K.M. Chaudary/AP

February 20, 1999: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif receives Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Wagah border near Lahore. Photo: B.K. Bangash/AP

By sentencing former President Musharraf to death for subverting the Constitution, the country’s higher judiciary sends out a strong message on civilian supremacy.

On December 17, a three-judge bench of a Special Court in Pakistan, in a historic judgment, ruled that former President Pervez Musharraf was guilty of “high treason” and awarded him the death penalty. The three-member panel announced in its verdict that Musharraf had been “found guilty for violation of Article 6 of Pakistan’s Constitution”. For the first time in the country’s history, a military ruler was held to account for subverting the Constitution.

The particular case under which the former military dictator was convicted relates to the imposition of emergency rule in November 2007. Musharraf had imposed a state of emergency and suspended the Constitution after the eruption of nationwide protests against his rule. The Pakistani media had described the actions as Musharraf’s “second coup”. Among those arrested were the Supreme Court Chief Justice and many of his fellow judges.

The case in which Musharraf has now been convicted had been dragging on since 2014. However, he has still not been held accountable for the far graver crime of staging a military coup and ousting a democratically elected government in 1999.

Widely hailed

Civil society has generally hailed the verdict. The stock market, however, took a dive after the detailed judgment in the case was released. In the Musharraf years, the economy grew at a steady rate. The business community fears that the emerging fissures in the political establishment do not bode well for the future. The President of the Employers Association of Pakistan went to the extent of saying that Musharraf’s contribution to the economy absolved him of all crimes.

The Special Court’s judgment upheld the concept of civilian supremacy, something that is not taken for granted in Pakistan. In fact, the Army has once again started interfering in a none-too-subtle way in the country’s politics. The judgment is being viewed as a strong message to the military establishment that it should not tinker with constitutional niceties in the future.

The judiciary and the legal fraternity had also played a big role in the events that led to Musharraf’s ouster and the return of civilian rule.

In recent months, the higher judiciary gave a few landmark judgments that rattled Imran Khan’s government and the military establishment that backs it. For instance, the Supreme Court allowed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is serving a seven-year jail term, to leave the country in November to seek medical treatment in the United Kingdom.

It was Nawaz Sharif who, as Prime Minister, appointed Musharraf Army chief in 1998. Musharraf is credited with being the mastermind of the 1999 Kargil incursion which brought Pakistan to the brink of war with India. Nawaz Sharif was kept in the dark when the Pakistan Army sent in infiltrators to take up positions on hilltops in the Kargil area across the Line of Control (LoC) in Indian territory.

According to most accounts, Nawaz Sharif was informed about the deployments much later and was given the impression that the Indian side would have no option but to negotiate from a position of weakness on the Kashmir issue after Pakistan seized the military initiative.

The Kargil operations commenced soon after a summit in Lahore between Nawaz Sharif and the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The “Lahore Declaration” had charted out a new road map for peace between the two neighbours.

Kargil misadventure

Kargil was a fait accompli presented to Nawaz Sharif by the Army. The Army had crossed the LoC without the government’s permission. Nawaz Sharif had little option but to acquiesce. Kargil was a setback for the Pakistani military, but a full-scale war with India was avoided. The misadventure did not dent Musharraf’s credibility at the time. Nawaz Sharif was made the fall guy after Musharraf mounted his military coup in 1999. He was put under arrest, and Musharraf went on to rule for almost a decade, dispensing with democratic niceties. Among his strongest critics at the time was Imran Khan, who was then waging a lonely battle with his fledging political party.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has also refused to rubber-stamp the extension given to the Army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa. To the surprise of many, the court decided to hear a petition by a habitual litigant questioning the three-year extension given to the Army chief.

It was the first time the Supreme Court had intervened in an issue relating to a serving Chief of the Army Staff and that too Gen. Bajwa, a powerful player in Pakistan politics and the man credited with masterminding the ascent of Imran Khan to the Prime Minister’s post.

In fact, the Supreme Court released the text of its detailed decision on the Bajwa extension case a day before the Special Court’s bombshell judgment in the Musharraf sedition case. The Supreme Court ruled that there was no rule in the Constitution that allowed for an extension to be given to a retiring Army chief. It decreed that Parliament alone must decide on the retirement age and the granting of the extension of tenure to the Army chief.

The judgment of the Special Court is heavy on symbolism. The government has gone in appeal to the Supreme Court, and the death sentence will be held in abeyance until the Supreme Court completes the hearings. Besides, Musharraf, who never bothered to present himself in court when the charges were filed against him, has been in a luxurious flat in Dubai since 2016, making occasional trips to hospital.

Musharraf had described the judicial proceedings against him at the time as “a vicious attempt to undermine the Pakistan military”. Civilian politicians have courageously faced proceedings, with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto even going to the gallows. Nawaz Sharif could have stayed on in London, but he returned to Pakistan in 2018 to serve a seven-year sentence.

Reactions

Gen. Rahil Sharif, a former Pakistan military chief, had strongly signalled the military establishment’s disapproval of the Nawaz Sharif government’s decision to put their former boss on trial for sedition. Nawaz Sharif’s decision to give the green light for prosecution of the former military ruler for sedition was an important factor that led to his alienation from the Pakistani “deep state”, which is dominated by the security establishment.

Musharraf was allowed to leave the country “on bail” to seek medical treatment abroad with the complicity of the military establishment. He had promised to return to Pakistan within a few weeks. The 76-year-old former military ruler is currently hospitalised but that did not prevent him from sending a video message professing his patriotism and describing the charges against him as “absolutely baseless”.

Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, Director of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), speaking on behalf of the Pakistan Army establishment, said the verdict in the high treason case against the former military chief “has been received with a lot of pain and anguish by rank and file of the Pakistan armed forces”.

The Army’s senior spokesman alleged that the Special Court had not followed “due process” and that the fundamental right of self-defence was denied. “Armed Forces of Pakistan expect that justice will be dispensed in line with the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” he said.

Pakistan’s Attorney General, Anwar Mansoor, speaking on behalf of the Imran Khan government, was quick to pronounce the judgment as “unfair”. He claimed that the defendant was not given the right of fair trial and was tried in absentia. Despite being a “proclaimed offender”, Musharraf had failed to present himself before the court and had also refused to send a statement to the court via video link from Dubai.

The case against Musharraf could be filed only five years after he left office. This was due to a secret deal done with the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia which guaranteed Musharraf “indemnity” in exchange for allowing civilian rule to return.

The leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Asif Zardari, who went on to become the country’s President, was party to the deal. In fact, the PPP government that was formed in 2008 took the oath of office from Musharraf, who was then the head of state. The “indemnity” was later approved by Parliament and ratified by the Supreme Court.

Mansoor questioned the haste of the Special Court in concluding the case, especially at a time when Musharraf was “in a critical condition in ICU”. A close aide of the Prime Minister criticised the opposition parties for “maligning the army” and “harming the interests of the state”.

The Imran Khan government was never interested in prosecuting the treason case against Musharraf. In November last, the government actually withdrew its team of lawyers and asked the court to stop proceedings against the former military ruler on the grounds that the case against him was weak. Little wonder, therefore, that the Special Court’s ruling came as a rude shock to the government.

The two major opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), and the PPP welcomed the Special Court’s verdict on Musharraf. The PML(N) leadership has not forgiven Musharraf for his role in the ouster of the civilian government led by Nawaz Sharif and the crackdown on its workers. Musharraf had also jailed Nawaz Sharif and put him on trial for sedition after his ouster from office in 1999.

The PPP leadership claims that Musharraf knowingly failed to provide sufficient security cover for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto after she returned to Pakistan. Many Pakistanis are of the opinion that her assassination could have been prevented had proper security cover been given.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has objected to aspersions cast on the Chief Justice by sections of the media, which reported that he had ordered the Special Court to fast-track the Musharraf sedition trial.

The judiciary in Pakistan has once again stood up for constitutional propriety, the democratic process and the rule of law in the country.

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