ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's government says it will put former military ruler Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment. While the move is unprecedented in a country where top army generals have long enjoyed immunity from prosecution, skeptics are questioning the timing of the announcement.
Treason charges against Musharraf stem from November 2007 when he suspended the constitution and imposed a state of emergency in an attempt to prolong his rule. The move effectively suspended and detained senior judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, although they were restored months later, after Musharraf stepped down from power.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told reporters in Islamabad that on the instruction of the Supreme Court, a special commission investigated the former military ruler and its findings have prompted the government to launch the legal process.
Khan cited Article 6 of the country’s constitution that empowers the federal government alone to try anyone for subverting the fundamental law.
Reasons, timing murky
The minister said the government will deliver a letter to the country’s chief justice on Monday asking him to appoint a three judge panel to try Musharraf for treason. Khan insisted the decision is not a personal vendetta by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in a bloodless military coup in 1999.
But the former president’s attorney, Ahmad Raza Qasuri, alleged the treason charges are politically motivated and meant to deflect attention from pressing economic problems and worsening security conditions in Pakistan.
“They have a personal vendetta to settle with General Musharraf because it was Mr. Nawaz Sharif, whose government was toppled down on 12th of October, 1999. As far as detaining the judges is concerned, in that case no judge or no relative of a judge has come forward in the investigation before the local police to record that they were detained illegally, so that case will fall like a house of cards,” said Qasuri.
Musharraf is free on bail in connection with several other legal challenges, but the former army chief is barred from leaving the country. He maintains his innocence and insists cases against him are politically motivated.
Human rights activists in Pakistan, including Tahira Abdullah, have long demanded elected civilian governments assert themselves to deter future coups by taking legal action against dictators.
“I am happy to hear that General Pervez Musharraf is going to be tried for treason under Article 6 of the constitution. It is long overdue, never mind, it has come. But the timing is absolutely awful. Nothing could have been worse than this for the simple reason that here we are faced with a very, very serious emergency in Rawalpindi and who knows how far it may take the whole of Pakistan in its flames, this fire of sectarianism and hatred and intolerance and militancy and extremism that is spreading all across Pakistan,” said Abdullah.
The city of Rawalpindi, where the powerful military is headquartered, remained under curfew for a third day on Sunday because of deadly clashes between majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite Muslims. Authorities have tightened security in major cities, including the capital, fearing the sectarian tensions could spread to other parts of Pakistan.
The country's security forces are also at war with internal Islamist insurgents and Pakistani Taliban allied to al-Qaida.