In test of Pakistani democracy, Pervez Musharraf appears in court


McClatchy Newspapers

Pervez Musharraf, the 69-year-old former president of Pakistan, surrendered to authorities Friday and was arraigned before a local magistrate on a range of charges that could send him to prison for years. He was the first of the country’s four former military dictators to appear before a civilian court.

The arrest was celebrated by mainstream politicians, many of whom had been detained, tortured and jailed or exiled by Musharraf, who’d been a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism before he was forced from office in 2008.

The Pakistani Senate unanimously adopted a resolution calling for Musharraf to be tried on charges of treason for overthrowing an elected government in October 1999. The court should treat the former army chief no differently from any other citizen, the Senate demanded.

"We are all equal and should all be treated equally," said Senate leader Raza Rabbani, who’s a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party of Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s president.

But Musharraf wasn’t treated like any defendant. He awoke in his own bed in his farmhouse outside Islamabad, bathed and shaved, ate breakfast and then let the authorities know that he was ready to surrender, a day after he’d fled a court to avoid arrest after a judge refused to extend his bail.

He also wasn’t sent to a local police station for 14 days, as would have been the case with most defendants. Instead, the police, pleading threats on his life, requested that Musharraf be detained at his farmhouse over the weekend, and the court agreed, giving the former dictator until Sunday to appear before an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi, not far from the headquarters of the military.

There was much skepticism here that Musharraf will be tried in connection with any of the range of offenses with which he’s charged, which now include violating anti-terrorism laws. Convictions on such charges often carry jail sentences calculated in multiples of seven years, chain gang-style hard labor and even death by hanging. Many suspect that the military, which has governed Pakistan for most of its 65-year existence, wouldn’t permit civilian interference in its affairs, however.

The most serious charges stem from Musharraf’s 1999 overthrow of the government led by Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-N party is widely forecast to win the most seats in the general election next month. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has told the caretaker government overseeing the elections that it has till Monday to initiate treason proceedings against Musharraf; if it doesn’t, the court will do so itself. If Musharraf is tried and convicted, he might face the death penalty.

Such criminal charges might well implicate generals who'd followed the former military ruler’s orders, including Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief of staff, who was the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency from 2004 to 2007.

The Supreme Court has shown no interest in deferring to the military. After Musharraf’s arrest Friday, it announced that it would make public the findings of a recently concluded judicial inquiry into a deadly July 2007 commando raid on a militant-occupied seminary in Islamabad. The implication is that Musharraf might be held responsible for the deaths of dozens of noncombatants.

Since Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March after four years in exile, he’s denied any responsibility for the operation, claiming that it was ordered by the then prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, a contention that many call incredible given that Aziz, a former Citibank executive, was a Musharraf protege and powerless in matters of national security.

Despite such obvious chinks in Musharraf’s legal armor, analysts fear that the judiciary’s pursuit of its former persecutor may spark an angry reaction from the military and threaten Pakistan’s young democracy. If elections are held May 11 as scheduled and a new civilian government is seated, it would be the first time such a transition has occurred since the country became independent from Great Britain in 1947.

"The cases are a Pandora’s box that, once opened, would be the start of a long story that would impact upon the entire army chain of command," said Suhail Warraich, the author of two best-selling books on modern Pakistani political history.

"My question is: With Pakistan undergoing a first-ever transition from one full-term democratic government to a general election, can this society afford such a divisive rupture?"

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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