Musharraf treason case could provoke new political tensions

Pakistan's decision to try Gen. Pervez Musharraf on treason charges sparks concerns of a showdown between civilian politicians and the country's powerful military.

B.K. Bangash/AP/File
In this April 15, 2013 file photo, Pakistan's former President and military ruler Pervez Musharraf addresses his party supporters at his house in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Former Pakistani ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf was supposed to find out that he could at long last leave the country and put his legal woes behind him. But in an unprecedented move, Pakistan's government on Sunday said it was initiating a treason case against him.

The treason case raises the stakes for both Musharraf, who has maintained his innocence, and Pakistan, which for most of its history has been ruled by the military. He'd be the first military ruler to face a treason trial, which could mean life in prison or the death penalty. The charges stem from his enactment of emergency rule in 2007 when, the government charges, he suspended much of the judiciary to consolidate power.

According to The News in Pakistan, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan sent a letter to the Law Ministry today to initiate proceedings again Musharraf. The letter will go to the Supreme Court to seek a special panel to try him. "The decision has been taken in the national interest,” Mr. Khan said yesterday at a press conference, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It is happening for the first time in the history of Pakistan.”

The Associated Press adds more from Mr. Khan:

(Khan) specifically mentioned Musharraf's decision to suspend senior judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and detain them after he declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3, 2007. He was apparently concerned they would challenge his re-election as president. "The constitution was ruined and violated," Khan said. "The judiciary was humiliated. Judges were manhandled physically, confined along with family and children."

Musharraf governed Pakistan, after a military coup, from 1999 to 2008, when he stepped down among generalized discontent with his leadership. He left the country and went into exile, returning this spring with hopes of relaunching a political career. But he was banned from participating in politics for life and has faced a series of criminal cases, including one for the alleged assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

He was placed under house arrest in April and was released earlier this month after receiving bail in all the cases against him. But the travel ban remained intact. He had requested permission to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to visit his mother.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in August that the indictment on murder charges in the death of Ms. Bhutto was a “remarkable moment for Pakistan. Military leaders – former or serving – have rarely faced the civilian courts. Musharraf is facing a host of legal issues, ranging from his role in the murder of the Baloch separatist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti to potential treason charges."

Now that he could officially stand in a treason case, the move toward "civilian supremacy" over the military is cemented, reports The New York Times. But there could also be unintended consequences, the paper notes:

The decision to put General Musharraf on trial also comes at a time of transition for the military. The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to retire at the end of this month. Chief Justice Chaudhry is due to retire in December. But if (Prime Minister Nawaz) Sharif is seeking to take advantage of this period of transition in Pakistan’s power politics, many warned that it could backfire. “They are adopting an unchartered course of action that contains many hazards,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst. “This case may ultimately alienate the military.”

 General Musharraf has defended his innocence. Raza Bokhari, his international spokesperson, wrote on his Twitter feed that: "treason charges against @P_Musharraf is a botched attempt by Nawaz to take the focus away from existential threats faced by Pakistan."

And some analysts concur that charges are a veiled attempt to take the focus off domestic woes. “It’s a pure political decision to avert public attention from the rather glaring incompetence of the government,” Raza Rumi, an Islamabad-based analyst, told the Los Angeles Times. "Musharraf can be (a) punching bag when there’s a severe crisis of governance.” 

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