Pakistan will try former strongman Musharraf for treason

Former Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, will be tried for treason, Pakistan’s interior minister said Sunday. If convicted, Musharraf could face the death penalty.

Musharraf would be the first of Pakistan’s military dictators to stand trial for subverting the country’s democratic constitution, a charge that stems not from his October 1999 ouster of the elected government but from his imposition of a state of emergency in November 2007 to sack rebellious judges who’d outlawed his attempt to dismiss the country’s chief justice.

The interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, said the country’s current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was also prime minister when Musharraf seized power, had decided not to prosecute Musharraf for the 1999 coup because he had "forgiven" the general.

"This is not an act of revenge," he told a news conference in Islamabad, the capital.

The government decision to proceed with Musharraf’s prosecution was taken in compliance with a Supreme Court ruling in July that a federal investigation be launched against him. The attorney general, Munir Malik, on Monday will submit a report on the investigation into Musharraf and ask the court to form a special three-judge panel to hear the case.

Musharraf’s fate has formed a dramatic backdrop for Pakistan’s political discourse since his return to the country in March to run in May parliamentary elections.

Musharraf, who was the country’s top military officer when he overthrew Sharif, had been advised not to return. The country’s courts later ruled he could not seek office, and prosecutors announced investigations into his role in a number of controversial events that took place during his nine-year rule, including the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He was placed under house arrest in April, but was allowed to post bail just 10 days ago, though he was barred from leaving the country.

Pakistani political analysts, speaking Sunday on the country’s plethora of independent cable news channels after the announcement, said they still doubt that Musharraf will be prosecuted, citing the country’s long history of military interference in government and judicial affairs. Musharraf was the latest of four military rulers who’ve seized power from elected governments in the country’s 66-year history.

"The day when the generals would be under the thumb of the government and judiciary are still far off," said Najam Sethi, speaking on his prime-time show on Geo News, Pakistan’s most popular cable news channel, shortly after the government’s announcement.

Sethi is arguably Pakistan’s most influential political commentator, a status that earned him the job of chief minister of Punjab, the country’s most populous province, in the neutral caretaker administration that oversaw the general election in May.

"I predict that the trial will go ahead, but slowly, and at some point, Musharraf would be granted bail and allowed to leave the country," Sethi said.

Democracy remains a relatively new, fragile institution in Pakistan, where the military is still seen as the ultimate adjudicator of power. This year’s ascension to power of Sharif is unique in the country’s history because it was the only time that one elected government took over from another.

Since being appointed in June for a third term as prime minister, Sharif has been able to assume more power than his predecessors, but has been careful to be seen to work with the military to resolve a list of crises that include a Taliban insurgency and an economy that would collapse without funding from the International Monetary Fund and other U.S.-backed multilateral lenders.

Pakistani analysts were thus convinced Sunday that the government would have taken the current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, into its confidence about the forthcoming prosecution and its legal dynamics, and that the military would have conveyed that information to Musharraf, who is imprisoned in a section of his luxury home in Islamabad.

Musharraf’s lawyer was expected on Monday to ask a judge to lift the ban on Musharraf leaving the country. The initiation of treason charges would probably prevent that, but Musharraf’s lawyers would still be well-placed to complicate proceedings by demanding that the charges be extended to other functionaries of his 2007 administration – a list that could extend to army generals still in service, including Kayani, who retires at the end of the month.

Sharif has yet to announce his choice to replace Kayani, a decision many here believe will be a key moment in his administration. His 1998 selection of an apparent weakling to lead the army – Musharraf – came back to haunt him.