Pakistan’s former dictator Musharraf to stand trial

Pakistan’s former military strongman, Pervez Musharraf, is to go on trial Tuesday on treason charges, in what promises to be a memorable piece of political theater that, in theory, could end with him being sent to the gallows.

In a country that army juntas have ruled for half its 66-year history, however, skepticism is rife among political analysts that the hangman’s noose might end the life of a former army chief of staff.

“He will not be executed. The worst-case scenario for Musharraf is that he will be sentenced to life imprisonment, which he would spend in his luxury home in Islamabad,” said Suhail Warraich, the political editor of the Geo-Jang media house, Pakistan’s biggest.

Musharraf has been confined at his home – declared a “sub-jail” on security grounds – since he returned to Pakistan in March to contest a May general election. He was disqualified from running, and subsequently charged with four political murders, including the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. No substantial evidence has been produced against him, however, and he would have been released on bail in November had the government not initiated treason charges against him.

One reason for the widespread skepticism about the outcome of the treason trial is the huge political power the army continues to wield behind the scenes of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, which Musharraf restored through elections in February 2008.

Mindful of military sensitivities, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hasn’t sought to try Musharraf for the October 1999 coup that overthrew Sharif’s previous administration. Sharif was appointed prime minister for an unprecedented third time after his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won a general election last May.

Rather, Musharraf is to be tried for imposing a state of emergency in November 2007, during which he suspended the constitution so that he could sack rebellious Supreme Court judges who sought to block a reconciliation law he issued to facilitate the transition to democracy.

The law granted immunity from potential criminal charges to politicians who’d served in Musharraf’s administration, and it ended legal proceedings under politically motivated charges of corruption that two Sharif-led administrations had brought in the 1990s against Sharif’s chief political rival, Bhutto, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

Another reason for general disbelief that the former general might pay the ultimate price for his abuse of power is his ability to name and shame a long list of powerful people as abettors to the crime he’s accused of.

To that end, Musharraf has chosen a legal team that includes Ahmed Raza Kasuri, who’s vowed not to allow his client to be made the scapegoat for the decision to impose the state of emergency.

Kasuri said he’d prove that Musharraf had decided to impose the emergency order in his capacity as president after duly consulting the government that formed after an October 2002 election that the military’s intelligence services had prevented the political parties led by Sharif and Bhutto from freely contesting.

The list of politicians includes former Prime Ministers Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, and Shujaat Hussain, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid party. It also includes former Cabinet members such as Zahid Hamid, a politician who’s since switched to Sharif’s party and is now the minister for science and technology, having served briefly as the law minister in the summer.

Aziz and other former Musharraf aides have sought to distance themselves from their erstwhile master and potential charges of treason by claiming he acted alone.

However, Hussain surprised political analysts last Monday by backing Musharraf’s version of events.

“Those who are now saying Musharraf sahib did not consult the government are lying,” Hussain said in a television interview.

Kasuri also has vowed to open a “Pandora’s box” by summoning the generals Musharraf consulted, in his dual capacity as army chief of staff, before imposing the emergency.

That list would include recently retired army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was the vice chief at the time and who was decorated Friday for his six-year leadership of Pakistan’s war against Taliban insurgents.

Musharraf’s legal team also is expected to challenge the credentials of the three high judges who will try him, on the grounds of conflict of interest. They include Yawar Ali, a relative of Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday, one of the judges Musharraf sacked during the 2007 emergency. The government selected all three from a handpicked shortlist provided by Iftikhar Chaudhry, the controversial Supreme Court chief justice, before he retired Dec. 11.

Political analysts said the forthcoming trial was becoming a Catch-22 situation for Prime Minister Sharif.

“If they had let Musharraf go, he would have been at their throats. They haven’t, but they can’t do anything but keep him at home, which is building sympathy for Musharraf,” Warraich said.

“I think this will turn into a trial of Sharif and his party,” he said.

The government’s dilemma was highlighted Thursday by the airing of a live television interview with Musharraf by ARY, a cable news channel. The interview was conducted from the studio by current affairs presenter Mubasher Lucman, who was connected via satellite to the former general’s supposed sub-jail home.

The interview was illegal, because it hadn’t been authorized by the courts that had ordered Musharraf’s imprisonment, and it would have been impossible to stage without the covert backing of the army.

Lucman made no secret of his sympathy for Musharraf, turning the interview into a comparative exercise in the quality of governance under his rule, during which Pakistan’s economy prospered, and the near-collapse of the economy under the two democratic administrations that have followed.

Musharraf was asked whether he’d accept a Saudi-brokered presidential pardon and life abroad in exile, were he to be convicted. Sharif had agreed to a similar deal after being convicted in 2000 of attempted murder for trying to prevent the airliner carrying Musharraf back to Pakistan from landing after learning of his plans to stage a coup. The plane would have run out of fuel and crashed, had generals loyal to Musharraf not intervened.

“I will not run,” replied Musharraf.

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