Justice for a dictator

As news filtered in about Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf falling ill on his way to the special court where he is being tried on treason charges, people wondered if he would be tried at all. The retired general, who was being taken from his palatial house in Islamabad’s suburbs to the court under heavy security of 1,600 personnel, is now comfortably ensconced in the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC), as it is suspected that he has developed some heart problem. A popular Pakistani twitterati  even joked about it suggesting that: “AFIC has diagnosed Musharraf with court allergy and says it can only be treated abroad.”

There are many others who have voiced their concern about this episode as a precursor to the general eventually being flown out of the country under the pretext of medical treatment. Certainly, there is little faith among the ordinary people that Musharraf will be tried at all for his sin of imposing emergency measures in November 2007. This was the second time that he had imposed military rule in nine years. Notwithstanding the numerous legal issues of the case, its ultimate result will throw light on where civil-military relations stand in Pakistan today. Or if civilian institutions have become stronger, as it is claimed.

‘Bored’ abroad

Musharraf had surprised everyone by returning to Pakistan early last year. Both his friends and enemies wonder as to why he returned to a country where he did not stand a chance in politics and where his life is threatened by the terrorists running wild all over the place. In fact, he was met by a contingent of armed commandos, as he landed at Karachi airport on March 24, 2013. The rally in his support also had to be cancelled in face of a threat of terrorist attack. Later in the year, the general’s political party, the All-Pakistan Muslim League (APML), could not win more than two seats in the 2013 elections.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Pervez Musharraf

Sources close to the general claim that he was getting bored in London and Dubai and was eager to return to the comfort of his home country where he knew his army would protect him. Just a couple of days ago, the 70-year-old general sounded defiant, as he threatened the political government of Mian Nawaz Sharif with reaction from the army.

The PML-N government, which made the government after the 2013 elections, was the one that Musharraf had ousted in October 1999. In November 2013, Prime Minister Sharif approved the formation of a special bench comprised of three judges from the higher judiciary that would try the military dictator only for imposing martial law in 2007. It is noteworthy that Musharraf was granted bail from the court in three other cases in which he was under trial: the Benazir Bhutto and Nawab Akber Bugti assassinations and the Lal proved case.

If proven guilty of treason, Musharraf can get a life sentence or the death penalty. However, many wonder if the army would ever allow it. Notwithstanding the fact that he had lost popular support within the armed forces when he was forced to take off his uniform in late 2007, and later quit the presidency in 2008, he remains a popular man within the ranks. He is remembered as a brash general who would even stand up for a junior officer, such as in the case of the Army Captain Hammad who was accused of raping  doctor Shazia Khalid in Sui, in Baluchistan province, in 2005.

However, this did not stop his generals from opposing him for his peace overtures to India or extra concessions to the US. Nor did it stop then army chief Ashfaq Kiyani from putting Musharraf under temporary house restriction in 2008, as is claimed by experts on Pakistan military.

This, however, does not mean that the senior commanders would approve of his severe sentencing or being dragged into court. In fact, the sudden ailment could be a ruse to scuttle the special tribunal’s insistence that he be present in court, especially after the judges did not seem impressed by the story of explosive material found near his house.

The army’s interest

Since his arrival in Pakistan and the initiation of various court cases, he has received all kinds of support and protection from the army. However, the current set of generals would like to defend him cautiously and not at the cost of risking the army’s reputation which was rebuilt after a lot of effort. According to popular narrative in Pakistan, former Army Chief General Kiyani is presented as a saviour of democracy, rather than someone like the imperfect political leaders Asif Zardai and Sharif. The media keenly propagates the corruption of these leaders rather than their successes, such as making adjustments and managing their political hostilities so that it does not result in instability as was witnessed during the 1990s.

Musharraf’s safety is part of the army’s core interests.

The civil-military matrix is re-arranged to make it look like an equal partnership. This means a higher threshold for the generals before they decide to strike and a civilian leadership that has understood not to challenge the military’s power or core interests. For instance, PM Sharif has outsourced national security policymaking and its implementation to the armed forces. Sources working close to the government claim that the military’s National Defense University (NDU) is now playing a greater role in making security policy. This is certainly reflected in the new counter-terrorism policy that, experts fear, recommends a new force which will be dominated by the military rather than the police.

The government has also brought to life the National Security Council (NSC) in which the generals enjoy an equal status with the political leadership. In 1999, the Sharif government got into a conflict with the military leading to his removal after he strongly reprimanded then army chief Jahangir Karamat for suggesting the idea of establishing the NSC. It is also clear that issues like relations with the US and India, Kashmir and nuclear weapons would remain the army’s forte.

Musharraf’s safety is part of the army’s core interests. The various stakeholders, which include the judiciary, do not seem inclined to go the whole hog in trying the general. In any case, the army remains gently defiant of the superior courts, especially in the missing person’s case. But if Musharraf had any good sense, he would take this opportunity to find a safe exit rather than push the generals for a showdown with the Sharifs. It seems this time it is not the civilians but a retired army general who is risking things for everyone.

Note: This article originally published here.