Musharraf’s last stand

By Sher Ali Khan

30 January 2014

A look at the difficulties and implications of trying a military ruler in Pakistan as Musharraf prepares to leave the country.
Pervez Musharraf Flickr / World Economic Forum

Pervez Musharraf
Flickr / World Economic Forum

One evening in November 2013, a delegation of ex-associates came to call on Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf at his heavily-guarded farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad. It was a last-ditch attempt by one sitting and one retired minister to warn the former dictator, who had been under house arrest after returning to the country in March, that it was time to leave.

Musharraf was said to be quiet, and asked only one question repeatedly: “Why should I leave?” There were no answers, just silence. The former commando seemed to sense he would eventually be a free man after months of legal tango. His intuition proved correct – at least temporarily. By the next day he had been granted bail in all of the four high-profile legal cases that had hounded him since his return to Pakistan, including the cases related to his alleged involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the deaths of Baloch nationalist Akbar Bugti and Islamist cleric Abdur Rasheed Ghazi.

But his freedom was to be short-lived. The Pakistani government would soon accuse him of having subverted the constitution in his 2007 imposition of emergency rule, a charge punishable by death or life imprisonment, and one which Musharraf and his camp have vehemently denied.

Not an ordinary citizen
A photo of the former general, relaxing with an aide and his dogs and celebrating his liberation, was released hours before Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan would announce a special tribunal to try Musharraf for high treason according to Article Six of the Pakistani Constitution, making him the first ex-dictator to face such a charge. This article stipulates that any person who, by force or any other unconstitutional act, tries to subvert, suspend or conspire against the Constitution can be punished by death or life imprisonment.

But at the moment the picture was taken, Musharraf did not seem worried. He was enjoying time at home with his friends. By returning to Pakistan from a safe and glamorous life of golf, dinners, and a flourishing career in public speaking, he had defied the advice of many friends and enemies alike.

“Why did I come back? Everyone was telling me not to return, because there were these dangers or those dangers, it’s because I am not an ordinary citizen,” said Musharraf in December 2013, in his first interview since he was technically freed.

Indeed Musharraf is not an ordinary citizen. He rose from a middle-class background to a long career in the Armed Forces. He became the Chief of Army Staff in the Pakistan military, and then President, effectively ruling the country for nine years.

“Explaining this is important because I am not thinking like that of an ordinary citizen, who just needs to pack his suitcase and buy a ticket home to Pakistan, I have run this government and do it well, so I am thinking above the level of an ordinary citizen, I am thinking for the nation and its people,” he said in the interview.

Most political analysts have assumed that the current Pakistan Muslim League-led government  does not have the political will or backbone to deal with the potential backlash that could come from trying a senior military man like Musharraf. This is despite a July 2009 Supreme Court judgment which held Musharraf responsible for violating the Constitution. The intrigue surrounding Musharraf derives from the uncertainty associated with Pakistani politics. The last elections were a landmark for Pakistan’s nascent democracy, as they marked the first hand-over of power from one civilian government to another. This happened at a time when the Pakistani Taliban, a group which has also targeted Musharraf had declared a violent jihad on the election campaigns of three of the major incumbent political parties: the former ruling Pakistan People’s Party and its coalition partners, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party.

The instability of Pakistani politics works in the favour of the military, which is still a very powerful lobby and has serious clout over the political proceedings in the country. In another interview given on 30 December, Musharraf had explained that the whole army was upset by his trial and that they would never like anything to happen to an ex-army chief. Musharraf’s own legal team, which has been aggressive in its tone, held various meetings with ex-servicemen, and publicly pleaded that he be tried by military court instead of the assigned Special Court.

Ikram Sehgal, a pro-military columnist for the English daily The News, decried the charges against Musharraf. He argued that the army was the single-most positive factor in Pakistan for peace and tranquility. “It is in our self-interest to sustain and motivate this fine Army and not resort to self-flagellation,” he stated. Statements like this have reinforced the ideological support for the military, whose role many experts believe is on the decline.

In many of his public appearances, Musharraf has referred to his past as a commando in the Pakistan Army Special Service Group, and his time as a young military officer at the Pakistan Military Academy. It was in the latter place that he took the oath “I will go by land, air or sea, wherever ordered even to the peril of my life,” which he uses as justification for his actions. His argument is similar to previous rulers, in that the parameters of law can be pushed in the better interest of the country. He is open about his regime’s decision to impose martial law in November 2007, and said that he was bound by his oath as Army officer. “If you’re faced with the question of defending the rule of law or defending the nation, my understanding is that I always have to defend the nation, always, and I would do it again, that’s my inner conviction,” said Musharraf.  

Musharraf’s representation of Pakistan tries to capitalise on the internal contradiction that surrounds the role of military dictators and their standing in the country. The arrogance and bravado is reinforced by his time in uniform, and his sense of entitlement leads him to assert that his decisions whilst in power were similar to a general leading his troops in battle, done to protect the nation state from an abstract and obscure threat. 

Legal expert and renowned columnist Babar Sattar attempted to shed light on the enigma of Musharraf and his treason trial in the daily Dawn:

“Musharraf’s is a hard case for it is about things that divide us as a society: need for democracy; rule of law; and khaki sense of entitlement. Looking at the bright side: we seem to have made incremental progress. Notwithstanding seething contempt for democracy and rule of law evident in the words of those who made hay under Musharraf, the main argument on paper has moved to whether the treason trial will strengthen or threaten rule of law and democracy.”

Leaders on trial
The Musharraf trial has failed to gain much popular support since the country’s noisy private media has questioned the wisdom of trying the general at a time when Pakistan is facing a raging Taliban insurgency and a free-falling economy. Also, mainstream politicians from leading political parties have been equally careful with what they say concerning the trial. Three senior senators, Current Finance Minister Ishaq Dar of PML-N, Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan People’s Party, and Zahid Khan of the Awami National Party, received threatening letters due to their repeated demands to try Musharraf under Article Six.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a professor of political science at the Quaid-i-Azam University, states: “I think the furore has already died down, so the trials do not mean much now. But in principle trying a chief of army staff would be of great significance because the ‘sacred cow’ syndrome would be put to bed forever… The issue is more the fear of the army, no mainstream politician wants to stick their neck out and take on the army for fear of being censured, or even eliminated.”

Since the legal cases have slowly begun, the view is that trying Musharraf could mean that the civilian government would be at odds with the military. Historically, no dictator or military man of Musharraf’s stature has been tried and convicted by a court. Whenever the military has overthrown a civilian government (in 1958, 1977, and then 1999), it has justified its actions in the name of national interest. The governance structure hence has catered to former military men and bureaucrats who for a long time retained widespread powers in a system that was generally described as a military-bureaucratic oligarchy due to the history of suppressing politics in the country. It is also well-known that a career in the military offers perks, financial gain, and a feeling of entitlement for officers, as documented by Ayesha Siddiqa in her iconic book Military Inc.  

The power of military men is rarely talked about in the Pakistani media, due to the laws which forbid defamation of the armed forces. It is only recently that the courts have on some levels tried to dispel the notion that there is a parallel system of justice for the military alongside the one applied to civilians.

The closest the courts have got to actually trying a general for criminal conspiracy occurred in 2012. The Supreme Court issued a verdict against the former Chief of Army Staff Aslam Beg, a former mentor of Musharraf’s, with whom he later fell out, and former ISI chief, Lieutenant General Asad Durrani. The courts ruled that the two former generals had used their respective institutions to bribe politicians and bureaucrats, and to forge a rightwing alliance led by current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against Benazir Bhutto in the 1990 general elections.

This case, which had collected dust for 15 years, revealed the lengths to which the military would go to ensure a government of their liking. Similar to Musharraf, the former generals Beg and Durrani had said that they had committed the crimes in the larger ‘national interest’ of the country. Since then, none of these generals have served jail time and there has been little attempt by the government to follow up on the case.

“Any case that has been tried or should be tried against a general has either never been started or is conveniently covered up. This isn’t just for the Chief of Army Staff, we are also talking about smaller ranking generals,” says Ali Aftab Saeed, front man of the satirical band Beygairat Brigade (Shameless Brigade).

Musharraf’s supporters and sympathisers say the political system itself could unravel if he stands trial, opening a Pandora’s box exposing the role of the political, bureaucratic and military elites in Pakistan in legitimising Musharraf’s imposition of the Emergency in 2007. Many members of this elite are in power today.

In June 2013 a senior member of the All Pakistan Muslim League (a party founded by Musharraf in 2010) disclosed that lawmakers from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and Pakistan Awami Tehreek had assured extensive support for Musharraf when the time was ‘right’. Fawad Chaudhry, a former spokesperson and founding member of the APML, who eventually joined the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as an advisor to former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, says: “Frankly speaking, if you would ask me today what the political parties felt about trying Musharraf, they are really indifferent. But there is support, many top political leaders have a soft corner for the former general, but the reasoning at this point is why stand with him because at this point it brings them down.”

After ruling as a dictator for nine years, Musharraf casts a long shadow over Pakistan’s politics due to his links with leading politicians, judges, bureaucrats and the armed forces, many of whom are in their positions, one could say, because of Musharraf. His former party Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain came out in open support of the former dictator, and then Muttahida Qaumi Movement Chief Altaf Hussain issued a seven-point demand that Musharraf alone should not be tried for treason, stating that those who aided him should be tried simultaneously. This has encouraged the perception that the trial is just a ploy to settle old scores.

“Most of these politicians were born out of dictators,” says Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, President of the small political party Awami Muslim League Pakistan. He adds that current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself owes his political rise to General Zia-ul-Haq, who denationalised Sharif’s family business and helped make him one of the richest men in the country. Rasheed himself was once a member of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League before joining Musharraf’s administration as a senior minister.

The trial of Musharraf is to cover old sins committed by the political elite, he says. In his speech to parliament in June 2013, Rasheed warned that the government’s decision to try Musharraf for treason could have serious consequences for the country. “The faces are the same, so I wonder what justice these politicians are now asking for. The reality is that the civilian governments have brought it on themselves, they are always unable to deliver and as result they pick fights with the institutions,” adds Rasheed, referring to the military and intelligence agencies.

A special court has been set up to try Musharraf for treason in a courtroom near the Prime Ministerial secretariat in Islamabad. The government has appointed 15 lawyers to try him, and the spectacle will be a highly watched battle.

Musharraf’s supporters and critics have emphasised legal nuances and the question of whether the case can be limited to Musharraf alone. Musharraf’s witness list includes over 700 names, starting with the recently retired Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and former Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Musharraf’s supporters claim there is a lingering grudge against their man, and have suggested the courts do not have a judge neutral enough to oversee the treason trial.

“The whole legal process has been biased, in our opinion. You can see what interests are driving the cases against Musharraf; there is a definite fear over what he stands for in terms of his politics, and legacy,” says Rashid Qureshi, the two-star general who was a close aide to Musharraf, and is now a spokesperson for the APML.

Musharraf’s defense team is led by the 90-year-old Sharifuddin Pirzada, known by some as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ for his role in formulating the legal cover and paving the path for almost every dictatorship in the country’s history. His stature is defined by a form of evil genius that has allowed him to develop escape clauses for some of most controversial leaders in Pakistan.

“There will be symbolic value as he understands how the judicial system works and he has had that sort of influence where he can stare into the judge’s eyes, and make him question his past character and the judiciary’s past compromises with dictators,” says Matiullah Jan, a journalist who has closely covered the workings of the Pakistani legal system, and is the host of Apna Apna Gareban, a popular investigative journalism show.

Already, considerable delays have marked the opening of the treason case. The trial was meant to start on 24 December but the hearing was delayed after explosives and a detonator were found on the way to the court house. A week later, on 2 January, after several security scares Musharraf mysteriously suffered heart issues on the way to the court house. These led to reports in leading US news outlets that Musharraf was likely going to be allowed to return to exile on the pretext of medical treatment. Around the same time, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal held a press conference in Islamabad during a two-day visit to the city to dispel rumours that the Saudi Government would act as a guarantor to take Musharraf back into exile.   
This has spiked rumours that Musharraf may be given a safe exit. Still, the scars of dictators from the country’s history are very visible. Former PPP minister Malik Mukhtar Awan spent nearly 12 years in various jails throughout the 1980s due to his struggle against another dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. The torture and abuse he experienced has meant that he rarely mentions the name ‘Zia’ in his recollections of Pakistan politics. He sees this as the time to undo the old system of deferring to the military. “All this talk of opening a Pandora’s box are simply delay tactics, the reality is we have no space for a state within a state anymore…These types of decisions take a while, but it’s very clear that the old adage applies, that justice delayed will be seen as justice denied,” says Awan.

But there is a sense of irony for people like Awan. The sound of Musharraf being let off, or finding an exit strategy, is a story they have heard before. This is a country where democratic leaders have been persecuted and dictators freed. This is the same country in which a popularly-elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was sent to the gallows on 4 April 1979, to legitimise the rule of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. In Musharraf’s case, the prospect of his trial may never go away, but it is widely believed that any punishment for his time in power may not come any time soon.

~Sher Ali Khan is a journalist with the Express Tribune.

One Response to “Musharraf’s last stand”

  1. James says:

    This is one of the most poignant pieces that has been written on Musharraf and Pakistan. I think this is one of the few pieces that has tried to understand the underlying contradictions of the state and its politics. The rent-seeking behavior and the overall structures in Pakistan intensify the long-term impact of the system on the wide-ranging masses.

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