Musharraf’s trial is not as peachy as you think

Pervez Musharraf put Nawaz Sharif on trial in 2000 and now the latter has put the former on trial. But how has the military allowed a civilian government to try its former chief? Why did Musharraf return from exile in the first place? And what is going to happen next? As with so much in Pakistani politics, the answers for today lie in the past.

By the end of 2006, General Pervez Musharraf was at the pinnacle of his power. His political opponents were in the wilderness of exile and he had a docile judiciary and a pliant parliament at his disposal to rubberstamp all his decisions. All of that, however, changed in the next six months or so. The judiciary challenged his authority like never before and the term for his carefully cobbled-together National Assembly came to an end as suicide bombers started wreaking havoc across the country, making the election of a new one look impossible.

Few expected Musharraf to ride over the storm. He did, though he was left badly bruised in the process. He started legal proceedings against the recalcitrant Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, launched a crackdown at an Islamabad mosque that had become a troublesome haven of Islamic vigilantes and terrorist groups, got himself re-elected as president from a parliament that arguably didn’t have the authority to do so and, finally, suspended the constitution and imposed emergency in 2007 to keep all the different challenges to his rule at bay.

In December 2007, he left his position as the army chief and became a civilian president in another bid to calm his critics. But the same month Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who was in talks with Musharraf for a transfer of power from the military to a fully civilian government, got assassinated in Rawalpindi after addressing an election rally.

When Musharraf finally left the office of the President of Pakistan in 2008, he was fully aware, as were his well-wishers and detractors, that all these incidents and developments would some day come back to haunt him. How, and how early, were the questions. The answers are coming out now – a few years too late, his opponents may say.

Repeating History, Again

In more ways than one, Musharraf occupies a position somewhere between Pakistan’s first military ruler Ayub Khan and the country’s most brutal dictator General Ziaul Haq.

Ayub Khan was the traditional man on the horseback with a mission to modernize the newly independent state of Pakistan in a disciplined (read: military) fashion, something the political class had failed to achieve through the ‘chaotic’ democratic means.

Ziaul Haq sought to put religion before all else and created laws, institutions and, most importantly, a mind-set that aimed at turning a divided multi-ethnic state into a monolithic community of believers.

Musharraf wanted to be a modernizer a la Ayub Khan but he created a democratic façade around his one-man rule to achieve that goal. And though his idea of moving Pakistan on the path of ‘enlightened moderation’ had religion inbuilt in it, he championed, at least in words, an Islamic Republic that shunned intolerance and extremism.

It is also in their departure from power that the three present a spectrum in which Musharraf is following a course part followed by Ayub Khan and part by Ziaul Haq. His ouster has been neither as smooth as it was in Ayub Khan’s case nor as sudden and bloody as it was for Ziaul Haq.

When in 1968-69, the government of President Ayub Khan was getting ready to celebrate ‘the decade of development’ that started with his takeover of power in 1958, streets (in the then-West Pakistan) were swelled by protesters angry with the regime’s economic policies and its handling of the 1965 war with India.

In the then-East Pakistan, the situation was far worse. The Bengali resentment against an overbearing, all-powerful central government in Islamabad had reaching a point where the country’s disintegration was looking like a distinct possibility. Faced with such political upheaval, Ayub Khan resigned, handing over power to another general and moved quietly to his hometown in the Himalayan foothills. Nobody bothered to try him for his acts of omission and commission, nor did he make any attempt to return to politics through other means.

Ziaul Haq’s departure was both violent and unexpected, and many say, as a result of a conspiracy by his military subordinates, political opponents and foreign powers all frustrated with his refusal to relinquish power. Unlike Ayub Khan, he was bent upon carrying on despite mounting political opposition to his regime in the country and intensifying anxiety among the international community over his foreign and security policies, especially towards Afghanistan.

When Musharraf faced political protests in 2007, he, like Ayub Khan, did relinquish his command of the military but, unlike Ayub Khan, did not resign from the presidency. And he sacked a government of his own choosing in 2007 to impose emergency, as Ziaul Haq did in 1985, but was lucky to survive all the serious attempts to assassinate him.

Pakistan’s October Revolution

Musharraf’s takeover of power in 1999 resulted partly from a political chaos similar to the one that existed before Ayun Khan’s coming into power, and partly because of the military’s unhappiness over the ‘encroachment’ of its institutional space by an elected prime minister, a situation that had also led Ziaul Haq to overthrow the elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

If nothing else, both these situations manifest an institutional balance of power that tilts heavily in favour of the military, which continues to be the case even today.

Nawaz Sharif, the then-prime minister, had indeed appointed Musharraf as army chief in October 1998 after forcing his predecessor General Jehangir Karamat to resign – precisely for defying the civilian authority. But the change of face at the top of the military hierarchy did nothing to change the institutional power of the military entrenched, mainly, in national security and foreign policy mechanisms.

Differences between the military and the civilian leadership over the handling of national security and foreign policy issues, especially the relationship with India and Afghanistan, not just persisted but exacerbated to a level where the military staged a coup and took over power from Sharif, sacking his government and abolishing the parliament on 12 October, 1999.

That the coup was an institutional decision, rather than the vehicle of an individual general’s political ambition, was obvious from the fact that Musharraf was not even in Pakistan when the takeover of power was carried out.

Role Reversal

The 1999 coup-makers arrested Sharif, the members of his family and many of his cabinet colleagues as well as senior government officials working under him, while Musharraf was still to return to Pakistan from a trip to Colombo.

By December 2000, a high court judge had awarded Sharif life in prison for hijacking Musharraf’s plane to divert it out of Pakistan. In the next seven years, Sharif and his family had to stay out of Pakistan, though planes and their diversions figured at least twice in their unsuccessful bids to return to the country.

The cycle of karma, however, was yet incomplete.

For almost four years after Musharraf resigned as the president of Pakistan in 2008, he was a free person even when he was facing many allegations as well as some court cases. However, there was a serious public debate over his trial for his many acts of commission during his nine years in power.

But Musharraf’s opponents at the time – the then-ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, the lawyers and the judges as well as the media – were, indeed, divided over what to do with him. There were loud echoes in power corridors as well as in the public arena that the army would never let the civilian government try its former chief, no matter what, to avoid an institutional embarrassment such a trial may lead to. Mindful of the uncertainty that all these discussions were creating about his own future, Musharraf chose to live outside Pakistan.

When he came back in early 2013, his timing was not as awfully wrong as it may seem now with the benefit of hindsight. A caretaker government was then in power and his main opponent, Sharif, was in the middle of an election campaign that, at that moment, was anybody’s call. The judges and the lawyers, too, were not as united as they were between 2007 and 2012 due to differences over how the superior judiciary had dealt with the democratic government in those years.

But what had changed to Musharraf’s disadvantage, and what he failed to recognize, was the military’s ability to distance itself from his politics. Having left the military five years ago, he did not have friends in high places to watch his back and the military’s institutional image was no longer linked to his personal fate. Five years of ostensibly staying out of politics had done so much damage control as to allow the military high command to disregard his personal misfortune, at least for the time being.

Since April 2013, Musharraf has been languishing in his farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad as an undertrial prisoner. His arrest came about for his involvement in the 2006 death of a Baloch chieftain, Akbar Bugti, in a military operation in Balochistan province. Later, he was also indicted for Bhutto’s assassination; and last week the police, on the orders of a court, booked him for the death of Islamabad-based cleric, Ghazi Abdur Rashid, who died along with many others in a security operation inside the mosque his father had set up in the federal capital.
 
In between these cases, Musharraf has also been booked for keeping the judges of the Supreme Court under house arrest in 2007 and imposing emergency later the same year. The trial courts have granted him bail in two cases: Bhutto’s murder and the judges’ detention. He is still under arrest over Bugti’s murder and could face the same over Rashid’s death.

In strictly legal terms, however, all is not lost for Musharraf. In each of the three murder cases he is facing, so far there is no incriminating evidence of his personal involvement. The judges’ detention case is also mired in legal and procedural complexities and his trial for imposing the emergency hasn’t even begun for a lack of precedence, as well as due to confusion over how it will be carried out and at which forum.

Regardless of all these attenuating circumstances, however, what Musharraf did to Sharif in 1999-2000 is happening to him now. When the former was in power, the latter was in jail; now when the latter is in power, the former is under arrest. Will the events move full circle, letting Musharraf move out of Pakistan as Sharif could, as a result of some bargain?

The answer is probably yes.

The Big Trial

Many public intellectuals in Pakistan aggressively champion the cause of trying and punishing Musharraf so as to ward off the possibility of a military takeover of power in the future. Others argue that trying and punishing him alone will never be enough of a deterrent for a military that still remains the most powerful and most organized institution of the State, with the potential, and sometimes even willingness, to step into politics.

A third group contends that digging up the past will serve no purpose except muddying the polity further and creating a vicious cycle of allegations, counter-allegations, persecution and counter-persecution.

Which way Musharraf’s trial moves will, in fact, depend on three factors: 1) The military’s attitude towards how he is treated in the courts of law; 2) The institutional consequences of the proceedings in each case; and 3) The nature of civil-military relationship in Pakistan in the months and years to come.

So far, the military has limited itself to influencing the trial by only ensuring that its former chief is not put in a regular jail. The military authorities are also in charge of his security and they also decide, although from behind the scenes, on how and when the police and other law enforcement agencies can access and investigate him.

The trial in each of the cases being faced by Musharraf will take months, if not years, before even the junior judiciary can finally sentence him. The military authorities seem willing to bide their time before actively getting involved on his behalf to get him out of the situation he is in.

This wait-and-watch policy makes sense in the context of how people’s concerns and complaints have already changed, and will change more in the coming months and years. There were, for instance, no jubilant crowds in the streets when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced in June this year, under advice from the Supreme Court, that his government will try Musharraf for suspending the constitution and imposing emergency in 2007.

The mood within the parliament was also lukewarm, with many in the opposition arguing that Musharraf must also be tried for his October 1999 coup if he has to be tried at all.

With no active support on the streets for his trial and with the parliament at best dithering, and at worst squabbling, over how to deal with him and his overthrow of civilian governments, the military has the luxury to wait out whatever impetus for the trial still exists – mostly among lawyers, senior judges and the media.

The retirement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry later this year will be a crucial factor in deciding how early somebody makes a move somewhere to ensure that Musharraf is put out of his sub-jail and placed on a foreign-bound plane. Chaudhry has been the casus belli of confrontation between the politicians and Musharraf’s military regime on the one hand, and between his government and the lawyers on the other.

He has been the most powerful champion of Musharraf’s trial. Once he is no longer in his exalted seat of Chief Justice his ability to mould and influence the government, as well as the public, in this regard will be seriously curtailed. 
 
Why should the military be concerned about Musharraf and his trial at all? The answer is simple: He could have committed none of the crimes he is being accused of in his personal capacity. In each case – including the three murders, the judges’ detention and the imposition of emergency – the military and civilian bureaucracy as well as intelligence agencies were actively involved. If he was giving all the orders, people below him in the chain of command were receiving and obeying those orders, and if he was making a final call for taking an action, people in the civil and military administrations were providing him with input to make that call in the first place.

As and when his trials proceed, all these questions will inevitably be asked and will have to be answered if his trial is to be seen as being fair. This may mean that dozens of serving and former senior officials of the military, including the current army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was intelligence chief under Musharraf, will have to be in the dock either as co-accused or at the least as witnesses against their own former boss.

If that comes to pass, it will be a monumental development in the history of Pakistan.

The chances are that it may not happen – at least not as long as the military remains a dominant player in Pakistan’s internal affairs. And there are no indications that the military is losing power to the civilian institutions. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Prime Minister Sharif is trying to keep the senior military command deeply involved in making decisions over national security and foreign policy. He has restructured the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, renaming it as the National Security Council and staffing it with the chiefs of all the armed forces, along with a few civilian members of the cabinet.

While it is ironic that, in 1998, Sharif had sacked General Jehangir Karamat for suggesting the setting up of a similar National Security Council, it is also a clear acknowledgement by Sharif of the power of the military in national affairs. He seems to have learnt a few lessons from his previous stint in power – that attempts to keep the military out of policy formulation and implementation leads to a power struggle that the civilians can never win, not at least in the foreseeable future.

Sharif is also wary of the military’s reaction to the looming appointment of a new army chief in November this year. His appointment of Musharraf in 1998 must have taught him that he cannot put the entire military institution under his control by simply appointing a person of his choice at its top.

Once appointed, an army chief automatically becomes the symbol of the collective authority of the institution he heads – as was shown by the October 1999 coup carried out by the military high command for its head, even as he was physically not present on the ground to give orders.

If Sharif is to avoid a repeat of what happened 14 years ago, he needs to be on the right side of the military, not just in appointing a new army chief but also in attempting to punish a former one.

Trying and punishing Musharraf for crimes that happened a few years ago, and have mostly lost their appeal as popular rallying cries, is certainly not something that Sharif would like to become a bone of contention between him and the military.

Musharraf’s trial will go on for a while as a sideshow in Pakistan’s congested political arena, which is also increasingly preoccupied with internal security and economic stability. But its outcome will only be determined by how the military sees it vis-à-vis its institutional image and power. Therein lies the key to what happens to Musharraf next.

Badar Alam is the editor of Herald, Pakistan’s leading current affairs magazine.

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