Pakistan's former President Pervez Musharraf failed to appear in court on Friday, his latest defiance of an unprecedented prosecution against the one time military dictator who stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
His lawyers are challenging the jurisdiction of the civilian court, which had issued an arrest warrant after nearly two months of no-shows. So far, the former Army chief has still not appeared in person before the court. Legal experts suggest that Gen. Musharraf is concerned that if he appears he would be formally indicted for treason, something that his lawyers are trying to avoid by attacking the legitimacy of the civilian court. However, a defense lawyer told the court Friday that his client would appear at the next hearing set for Feb. 18.
Musharraf is accused of violating the constitution in 2007 when he enacted emergency rule and suspended much of the judiciary. The treason trial is a first for Pakistan and its powerful military, which has frequently intervened in politics. If convicted, the retired general could face the death penalty. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Musharraf stepped down in 2008 and went into exile for four years. Last June saw the return to power of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf had ousted in a coup in 1999. Mr. Sharif quickly began proceedings to bring treason charges against Musharraf and hearings got underway in December.
Musharraf missed a Jan. 2 court hearing claiming a medical emergency. He remains in hospital and has asked the court for permission to seek medical treatment abroad, effectively going back into exile. But this was rejected by the court, which ordered him to appear Friday.
Earlier this week, Musharraf paid a $23,700 bond to the courts as a guarantee that he would attend. But he failed to appear at the National Library in Islamabad, which had been designated as a special court for the trial, and has forfeited the bond.
Musharraf’s lawyers told the court that the former president could not appear until their challenges to the composition and jurisdiction of the court had been heard. The defense has argued that the civilian court doesn't have the authority to try a former Army chief. It has also tried to dismiss the case on technical grounds and alleged bias among the three judges named to the bench.
On Friday, defense lawyer Anwar Mansoor focused his attack on Faisal Arab, the head of the bench, alleging that he was biased because he barred Musharraf from standing in last year's elections. But Mr. Mansoor then assured the court a verbal promise that Musharraf would appear at the next hearing.
Few, however, expect the retired general to appear. “He [Musharraf] is biding his time for some foreign intervention to get him out of this mess,” says Rasul Bakhash Rais, an Islamabad-based political analyst. Until then, Rais predicts that Musharraf’s legal team will continue to filibuster their way through the proceedings with technical arguments.
Retired Brigadier Shaukat Qadir, who served in the Army at the same time as Musharraf, says that the trial should be allowed to run its course. “This charge of treason is going to be very difficult to prove,” he says. “If Musharraf had a bit more sense he would go to court and face the music.”
Brigadier Qadir added that while there is general concern within the military that Musharraf is being victimized, the former Army chief does not have the unwavering support of the top brass and says that the Army would not take direct action to support him.
Critics say the judges in Musharraf's case have been weak, noting that courts in Pakistan are usually quick to issue contempt of court orders, but that none have been issued against the former dictator, despite his repeated no-shows.
“The court will give him [Musharraf] time and wont rush proceedings because of the sensitivity of the case,” says Rais. He says that Musharraf is unlikely to be convicted for treason and that the government would be reluctant to appeal any acquittal.
“The government put the ball in the court of the court,” he says, adding that the government simply wanted to be the first to bring treason charges against a former Army chief rather than actually convict him of a crime.