ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, has appeared in a special court to face treason charges, after repeated no-shows for weeks. The trial of the former army leader is unprecedented in a country where the military has staged several coups and its top officers have, until now, enjoyed an undeclared immunity from prosecution.
Security was tight in and around the court building when Pervez Musharraf, wearing a traditional Pakistani outfit -- called the shalwar kameez -- arrived to attend the legal proceedings.
Once the most powerful man in Pakistan, the 70-year-old former general stood up and saluted the judges as they entered the room.
Since the trial began in late December, Musharraf has missed two appearances because of security concerns and then he was hospitalized on January 2 for medical reasons that emerged while he was being driven to the courthouse in Islamabad.
Tuesday’s proceedings ended quickly because the judges acknowledged they have to first rule on a defense motion challenging whether the court is eligible to try Musharraf before he is indicted on treason charges. Defense lawyer Ahmad Raza Kasuri later discussed details of the motion and said former or serving military officers can only be tried in a military court.
“We stated categorically that this special court, which is a civil court, has got no jurisdiction to try General Musharraf because when General Musharraf issued proclamation of emergency at that time he was in [army] uniform," said Kasuri. "Therefore, he has to be tried by the military court. Now the court has given Friday, is the date fixed for making an order on the application wherein we have stated that the matter should be transferred to a military court.”
Kasuri said the defense has also challenged the objectivity of the judges hearing the case and the way the legal panel was set up. He added that until the court passed rulings on all these applications, his client cannot be indicted on treason charges.
The trial relates to Musharraf’s decision in 2007 to suspend the constitution and declare a state of emergency in his bid to extend his increasingly disputed rule as president. The former leader dismisses the case as a politically motivated vendetta.
Some observers say the trial could help discourage future military coups in Pakistan, while others, like former parliamentarian and columnist Ayaz Amir, disagree.
“This trial and the way it is being conducted and the way the government pushed it, was I think a bit unnecessary and done in haste. Such things do not prevent military coups," said Amir. "The only thing that can prevent coups is performance, civilian competence, political command over the various facets of policy, but if the civilians lack that kind of competence then the military mind will dominate them.”
Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999 by ousting then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and later forcing him into exile. He stepped down in 2008 and went into self-imposed exile months later. The former army leader returned to Pakistan last year to participate in the May elections but was barred from doing so because of several legal challenges facing him. Sharif’s party won the polls and he is now the prime minister of Pakistan for a third time, but he remains under fire from political opponents for being unable to address critical economic and security challenges facing Pakistan.