ISLAMABAD – It’s time for paying back the debt of history for a former dictator-president, who in 1999 jacked into the driving seat by rolling up the civilian rule of the present PML-N rulers.
In an unprecedented move, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Monday it would put General (r) Pervez Musharraf on trial for high treason – charges punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Also on Monday, the country’s top court gave three days to the government to initiate proceedings against the alleged violators of the constitution, telling it there was no need for forging ‘political unanimity’ on the issue.
Musharraf, who returned from four years of self-imposed exile in March, has been under house arrest at his villa on the edge of Islamabad since April 19. Once the most powerful man in the country, he faces a slew of charges relating to his 1999-2008 rule after seizing office from then PM Nawaz Sharif, who won landmark elections in May.
Any trial could put the civilian government at loggerheads with the powerful army, which vehemently opposes the prospect of its former chief facing the courts in Pakistan. It also threatens to sabotage the chances of an alleged quiet deal that Musharraf’s legal team had hoped would allow the 69-year-old to win bail and quietly leave the country.
A treason trial can be initiated only by the state. “Musharraf’s actions came under the purview of high treason,” Nawaz told parliament. “He should face trial… and will have to answer for his guilt before the court,” he added. Attorney General Munir Malik delivered the same statement on behalf of the government in the Supreme Court. “Those who aided or abetted holding the constitution in abeyance will also be brought to justice,” Malik said.
The highest court of the country has for months been hearing a petition from lawyers demanding that Musharraf be tried for subverting the constitution by imposing emergency rule and sacking judges in 2007. Judge Jawad Khwaja ordered the attorney general to inform the court on Thursday about the precise steps required to bring those guilty of treason to justice.
Musharraf’s office accused Nawaz government of “demonstrating recklessness” in pursuing “unwarranted” treason charges, which it warned could destabilise the country. “The former president has served Pakistan with selfless devotion and perseverance. The people of Pakistan will not tolerate this circus, which is primarily meant to create a diversion,” it said.
Musharraf’s defence lawyer Ahmed Raza Kasuri told reporters outside the court that putting Musharraf on trial would open “Pandora’s box” in the country. “Those who were collaborators are equally responsible… Whatever he did was in the interest of the state,” he said.
In April, a caretaker government guiding Pakistan through the elections refused to initiate the trial against Musharraf, saying it was beyond its mandate and up to the new government.
Nawaz Sharif did not mince his words. “Musharraf violated the constitution twice. He overthrew an elected government in 1999 and put everything into jeopardy. He sacked judges and imprisoned them,” he said. “We will follow the process of law and all political forces will be taken into confidence,” he added.
The two main opposition parties, President Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan welcomed PM’s remarks. PTI’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi said his party would support the prime minister on “every move towards supremacy of the constitution and law.”
“This house should have another resolution against all dictators so that no one can cast an evil eye on this house,” said Syed Khurshid Shah, PPP opposition leader in the national assembly. Though in a July 2009 judgment a 14-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had declared Musharraf ‘usurper’, but during the last five years the PPP government avoided initiating proceedings against him.
Attorney General Munir A Malik on Monday read out the government stance to a three-member SC bench hearing petitions seeking treason trial against Musharraf. He said, “The federal government in line with the Supreme Court’s decision in the SHCBA firmly subscribe to the view that holding abeyance of the Constitution on November 3, 2007 constituted an act of high treason under Article 6 of Constitution… the government is committed to following the highest standards of rule of law it wishes to ensure that further steps required to be taken by it are not blurred under the cloud of ‘victor justice’.”
The AG’s request for 30 days time for adopting methodology to investigate those involved in proclamation of Emergency in Nov 2007 was turned down and squeezed to three days. The court directed him to specify by June 26 the process and mechanism to be put in place for bringing those persons to justice who were guilty of high treason.
The bench expressed displeasure over the statement, particularly the last paragraph, which read: “Given the primacy of the issue in the struggle for upholding the spirit of the constitution, the federal government will proceed in accordance with law and also take political forces into confidence through a consultative process so that the collective will and wisdom of the people of Pakistan is duly reflected in further process in this behalf.”
Justice Khilji’s prompt reaction was that “the stand of the interim setup was better than the incumbent government”. He said that there was no need of consultative process as here the constitution has been “murdered, so, go and start the process”. However, Justice Jawwad, who headed the bench appreciating the statement said: “It has some substance and the government has categorically given its position.” It shows concrete progress in the matter, he added.
Justice Ejaz remarked that initiating proceeding and sentence against the persons found guilty of high treason has been clearly defined in the Section 2(b) and 3 the High Treason (Punishment) Act 1973, while creating special court is given in Criminal Law (Amended) Special Courts Act 1976. As per the SRO 1994 the secretary interior is the competent person on behalf of the federation to lodge written complaint against the person who abrogated, subverted or held in abeyance the constitution.
The attorney general said new methodology has to be evolved for the collection of evidence and the prosecution of people involved in Nov 2007 act. Justice Jawwad said it was not just Musharraf who imposed emergency but according to Engineer Jamil’s petition around 600 people involved in the crime. The AGP said that everyone involved in promulgation of emergency would be brought to justice. He said that now at least the ‘wheel is put into motion’. The case was adjourned until June 27.