Will the army bite the bullet on Musharraf?

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Caught in a bind Former president Pervez Musharraf is now under house arrest in Islamabad, Photo: AFP
Caught in a bind Former president Pervez Musharraf is now under house arrest in Islamabad, Photo: AFP

First it was a shoe, and then a chair. The lawyers — the fan club of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry — want to outdo each other to thrash former dictator Pervez Musharraf, who returned to Pakistan in March in hope of returning to power through the electoral process. Each time there was an effort to attack him in the courtroom, he was saved by his supporters and security men. In fact, during one of the hearings on 23 April, his supporters came prepared with clubs to stave off the threat of an attack by the lawyers. The trick worked on that particular day but the question is for how long? The former president is expected to present himself frequently for the four legal cases against him. The more time he spends in Pakistan, the more he will probably realise it was a bad idea to follow his heart and head (the latter stopped working a long time ago), and advice of all those from within the army for him to return.

With every passing day, it becomes clear that he has indeed put the military fraternity at large in a soup. Some of the retired officers such as former army chief Gen (retd) Mirza Aslam Beg have expressed resentment at Musharraf’s treatment by the lawyers and others. In an interview, Beg and Maj Gen (retd) Jamshed Ayaz Khan warned the people of invoking the honour of the army that, in their view, may not tolerate public ridicule of senior retired officers. Beg’s perspective is understandable because he is also bitter about the superior court holding him responsible for using the ISI to influence the 1990 General Election against former PM Benazir Bhutto.

Despite such warnings, the army is divided on Musharraf. The army may certainly try to save him from being dragged out in the streets, but opinion is at best divided on how far to go in his defence. In any case, army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had earlier warned his predecessor against returning to Pakistan. Former ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha was allegedly dispatched to Dubai to stop Musharraf from returning. Thus, it is possible that Musharraf might have been encouraged by the anti-Kayani group to return. Some senior officers might not be great fans of Musharraf’s policies but they would support him out of resentment for Kayani, who still seems to be in the run, possibly, for a year’s extension as army chief. Such a decision directly affects many senior officers. Moreover, Kayani lost a bit of sheen within his fraternity due to the extension of tenure from, what is viewed in the army, a corrupt PPP leadership and former president Asif Ali Zardari.

Nevertheless, the debate on how Musharraf must be treated is not just confined to the army. There are many civilians who argue that there should be a sharp distinction between justice and revenge. They have a point because the latter would give the former dictator a moral edge. The Islamabad High Court has issued him a notice for treason, a case that the court cannot entertain on its own but on the request of the federal government. The caretaker government, which technically has a short lifespan and will cease to exist after another government is formed in the wake of the 11 May General Election, is in no position to initiate a case with long-term consequences. The Supreme Court (SC) has also initiated a terrorism case arguing that his poor handling of the superior judges pertains to an act of terrorism.

Then there are two murder cases — the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto (who died in a bomb blast in December 2007, a month after ending her exile) and Balochistan separatist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti (who died in a missile attack in August 2006), in which Musharraf is being seen as the key culprit.

Now, various security agencies such as the police and Federal Investigation Agency are visiting Musharraf at his farmhouse in Islamabad, declared as sub-jail (the fact that he is tweeting from his jail despite court orders to deny him access to phone or similar gadgets indicates that he may not be living in miserable conditions). This in itself may not come as a surprise because the Deep State can be lenient towards some prisoners (For instance, Omar Saeed Sheikh, who abducted American journalist Daniel Pearl from Karachi and murdered him in 2002, had the convenience of calling president Zardari from his prison cell pretending to be the Indian external affairs minister and threatening war).

Another reason for quite a few people to argue for the principles of justice to be applied in this case is perhaps nothing to do with Musharraf but a deep discomfort with the Supreme Court’s conduct, especially in the past five years. While the SC seems to have raised its overall profile in the eyes of the public, there is also a perception that what is being done is not justice but populism.

Given the state of poor governance in Pakistan, common people feel that the SC provides some relief, which may not be entirely true as all the critical cases are pending. Be it the missing persons’ case (relating to people from Balochistan who were allegedly abducted by the security agencies) or the rental power providers’ case (relating to a $5 billion scam in which outgoing PM Raja Pervez Ashraf allegedly received kickbacks from private power companies), the SC was unable to find any clear solution.

The only result was in the case of writing letter to Swiss authorities to start proceedings against Zardari. The court could only manage to sack then PM Yousuf Raza Gilani for not writing the letter. However, the Swiss courts did not comply nor did the SC show any interest in pursuing the matter with the Swiss courts giving an impression that the entire objective is to target the PPP rather than do anything credible.

However, the SC is feared as it can initiate a case of contempt against people, especially those openly critical of it. Thus, the sceptics see this as an opportunity to critically evaluate the SC and point out the fact that it is not doing justice in this case (as in other cases).

This, of course, does not mean that people will come out on the streets again in favour of Musharraf. He has others to take care of him, like some sections of the army. He is certainly in a much better shape than any ordinary prisoner. While he was taken briefly to the police headquarters in Islamabad, he was returned right back to his farmhouse considering the fear that someone might assassinate him, as it happened in the case of Punjab governor Salman Taseer.

There is a general perception that nothing majorly untoward will happen to Musharraf. In a spot survey conducted by one of the English dailies asking if he will be punished, a majority believed that he will not. The question then is what kind of arrangement will be made to secure his safe exit out of Pakistan? Of late, he has been talking about missing his old and ailing mother in Dubai. This is indeed a Catch-22 moment for both the military and the judiciary. Allowing him to be punished will set an unwelcome precedent for the military. However, letting him go would not be good for the judiciary’s reputation or for Chaudhry’s ego. Many believe that it is ultimately a case of competing egos of two men — Chaudhry and Musharraf.

But it is also an issue for the army, which, as mentioned earlier, is watching the case intently. There are those who believe that the treason case will certainly not be allowed to proceed as it could open another Pandora’s box that will involve other army generals as well. Under the circumstances, there is a possibility that Musharraf’s own institution may be in a hurry to get rid of him. The only question then would be what form this getting rid would take.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc

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