Pakistan’s government said Sunday that it was initiating a treason prosecution of the country’s former ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in what would be a groundbreaking if politically charged assertion of civilian supremacy over the powerful Pakistani military.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that the government had asked the Supreme Court to establish a special panel to try General Musharraf on accusations that he subverted the Constitution in late 2007 when he imposed emergency rule and fired much of the judiciary.
The military has ruled Pakistan for about half of the country’s 66-year history, and no ruler or top military commander had ever faced criminal prosecution until General Musharraf’s return from exile in April. Since then, he has faced criminal prosecution in four cases related to his time in power.
But a treason prosecution would sharply raise the stakes between civilian and military leaders — the charge carries a potential death penalty — and, analysts warned on Sunday, could cast the country into new political turmoil.
“It is a can of worms,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and respected political commentator. “It is really absurd.”The decision to proceed against General Musharraf comes at a tough time for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government is facing increasing scrutiny for its handling of the economy, foreign relations and security. And personally, Mr. Sharif, who is visiting Thailand, has been criticized for his frequent foreign tours even as Pakistan has faced struggle after struggle.
On Friday, at least nine people were killed and 50 were wounded in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to the capital, as sectarian riots broke out between Shiite and Sunni groups.The violence led the government to clamp a two-day curfew on the city, suspend cellphone services and bring out troops in several other cities to quell tensions.
And relations with United States are under strain over accusations that the an American drone strike that killed the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud sabotaged nascent peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.With such a turbulent political environment as backdrop, the sudden announcement of treason charges brought immediate questions and criticism.
“What we saw today was a political decision,” said Fahd Hussain, the director of news at Express News television network. “It was important for Nawaz Sharif to be seen to deliver on his past pledges.”
What seems clear, at least, is that Mr. Sharif’s government wanted to prevent General Musharraf from slipping out of Pakistan into exile. General Musharraf, a former army chief, had been under house arrest at his villa outside Islamabad until earlier this month, when he was released on bail on all cases and later requested permission to go to Dubai to visit his mother.
On Monday, lawyers of General Musharraf are due to make a court application to have him taken off an official list that prevents him from leaving Pakistan. A treason prosecution would result in new restrictions on Mr. Musharraf’s movements, although it remains unclear how quickly the Supreme Court would move on Monday.
In a statement on Sunday, General Musharraf’s office described the treason charges as a “vicious attempt to undermine the Pakistan military” and a “botched attempt” to divert attention from the country’s other problems.Babar Sattar, a lawyer and columnist with the English-language daily newspaper Dawn, said that Mr. Sharif appeared to be betting that the army would not stop the judiciary from trying General Musharraf in open court.
“I think Nawaz realizes that Musharraf is a bygone for the army,” he said. “He wants to fix him but does not want to give an impression that it is revenge.”
General Musharraf’s supporters say the law is being applied selectively, pointing out that many senior justices, including the country’s crusading chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, validated the 1999 coup that brought the military ruler to power. Mr. Chaudhry was among the judges fired by Mr. Musharraf during the state of emergency, and later became a rallying point for opposition to the former general’s rule.
The decision to put General Musharraf on trial also comes at a time of transition for the military. The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to retire at the end of this month. Chief Justice Chaudhry is due to retire in December.
But if Mr. Sharif is seeking to take advantage of this period of transition in Pakistan’s power politics, many warned that it could backfire.“They are adopting an unchartered course of action that contains many hazards,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst. “This case may ultimately alienate the military.”
Mr. Rizvi added that governance had been “very poor” and ordinary people are very affected in the last five to six months due to inflation and chronic power shortages.“It just shows very poor sense of priority. What are they trying to achieve?” said Mr. Masood, the retired general.
“The army is involved in the tribal belt. It is also involved in maintaining piece in Karachi and now in Rawalpindi. What message is the government sending?”
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