Treason charges pit civilian authority against military power

Nawaz Sharif's decision to press treason charges against former President Pervez Musharraf challenges the status quo of civilian-military relations.

Manish Swarup/AP
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (l.) talks with Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, during a retreat at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in Colombo, Sri Lanka , Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013.

The Pakistani government's decision to initiate treason proceedings this week against former President Pervez Musharraf will test the political skill of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose bold assertion of civilian supremacy over the military comes two weeks before he is due to appoint a new army chief of staff.

Mr. Sharif's government today reportedly asked the chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court to select judges for Mr. Musharraf's trial. On Sunday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan made a surprise announcement that the government would bring treason charges against the retired general for allegedly violating the constitution in 2007 when he enacted emergency rule and suspended much of the judiciary.

Treason charges – which carry a possible death penalty – have never been brought against a Pakistani military leader. Pakistan's military has traditionally exercised outsized control over the civilian government, including overthrowing it three times during the country's 66-years of existence. 

One of those military coups was against Sharif, who was overthrown by Gen. Musharraf in 1999.

Sharif may be sending a message to the military establishment about who is in charge of Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies, especially in light of his past experiences with the Pakistan Army, says Raza Rumi, director at Jinnah Institute, an independent think-tank based in Islamabad. "It seems Sharif’s government is asserting its power and legitimacy to rule," he says.

Last month, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced he would retire when his term ends on Nov. 29. General Kayani, who has served six years as army chief, is credited with not interfering in Pakistan's first transfer of power from one democratically-elected government to another when Sharif was elected in general elections this May. The military has continued to exercise considerable power under Kayani.

As prime minister, Sharif will name a replacement for Kayani. He will also name a new head of the joint chiefs of staff committee. 

Sectarian clashes

Some have questioned the timing of the announcement of the treason charges against Musharraf.

The charges were announced on Sunday after a weekend of sectarian conflict. Riots erupted Friday when a Shiite procession was passing a Sunni mosque in the city of Rawalpindi, a garrison town next to Islamabad that houses the country's army headquarters. 

“It was extremely odd for the federal minister of interior to club together the Rawalpindi riots and Musharraf’s case in a press conference with a cursory mention of the former,” says Bushra Gohar, a former parliamentarian, whose party was in power during the last government.

The treason charges could be a distraction from the government's handling of the riots, which may result in an increased death toll, critics charge. 

Following the clashes, the government called in the military to control the situation, suspended mobile networks in the city, and imposed a two-day curfew which was lifted Monday morning. 

Sharif, who is on an official visit to Thailand, is also being criticized for not returning to the county amidst sectarian turmoil at home. His government is already facing a number of challenges, including faltering US-Pakistan relations over drone strikes, and new vows from the Pakistani Taliban to avenge the death of their Sunni brethren killed in sectarian clashes over the weekend.

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