Even though Gen Pervez Musharraf has finally been indicted on five charges of treason by the Special Court constituted to try him, the widespread feeling within Pakistan and beyond is that this is probably as far as the civilian government could go against the ex-military strongman. As the argument goes, having made history - Musharraf is the first Pakistani military dictator to stand trial, it is time for all sides to back-off because the case has reached its ‘logical conclusion’.
For now, it is a win-win for all sides: the Nawaz Sharif government and the judiciary can claim to have made an example of Musharraf without being too bloody-minded and vengeful; the army can pat itself on the back for not having obstructed justice or destabilising the civilian government and at the same time managing to protect its former chief from being humiliated; Musharraf can boast about how he boldly faced the courts – it is another matter that he once virtually ran away from one court and then feigned illness to avoid appearing before the Special Court for weeks. Speculation is rife that within the next few days Musharraf will be allowed to leave Pakistan with either his mother’s hospitalisation or his own health becoming the excuse, to not return ever or at least until a more friendly dispensation assumes power in Islamabad. If indeed he gets out of Pakistan, the civilian government will not only have avoided any unintended consequences emanating from this treason trial, but also have got rid of a somewhat unnecessary distraction at a time when it is confronted with monumental economic and security challenges.
But things are a little more complicated than what the win-win situation would seem to suggest. Even though Musharraf’s exit from Pakistan works for all the players, the problem is not just that someone has to make a call to let Musharraf go, but also that whoever makes this call will also have to take a fall, if not a tumble, for Musharraf. This really is the nub of the problem and unless this is sorted out soon – the window of opportunity to send Musharraf out before the treason trial gathers pace will not remain open for very long – a situation could develop where, despite their reluctance, all the players are pushed by the force and logic of circumstances and their own stated positions in a direction that leads to Musharraf’s conviction and worse.
Until his indictment, Musharraf was placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) which prevented him from leaving Pakistan. The government claimed that removing his name from the ECL could only be done by the courts. But the Special Court has ruled that this is a call that the government has to take, which it is quite understandably unwilling to do. Nawaz Sharif knows that letting Musharraf go at this stage would open him to an unbearable political attack by the opposition parties. Just as Nawaz Sharif and his party used the Guard of Honour given to Musharraf when he quit the Presidency against the PPP, now the shoe will be on the other foot. Sharif still finds it difficult to live down the charge that he ran away to Saudi Arabia after seeking mercy from Musharraf. If he now allows Musharraf to leave, and that too without any mercy petition, he will give his opponents a big handle to beat him with.
If it were up to Sharif, he would like nothing better than to see Musharraf in prison, even hang. According to people who know Nawaz Sharif, he doesn’t forgive easily. It is only on Sharif’s adamance that Musharraf’s trial even managed to reach the stage of indictment. The grapevine is that Nawaz Sharif is keen to see Musharraf get convicted. At that stage, he would magnanimously allow a Presidential pardon after Musharraf appeals for clemency. This way Nawaz Sharif would settle the score. Members of Nawaz Sharif’s party and other observers argue that allowing Musharraf to flee soon after his indictment would set a terrible precedent and example and undermine the quest for rule of law in Pakistan. It will open the door for any person facing serious charges to seek permission to go out of the country on one pretext or another. Therefore, Nawaz Sharif and his team is loath to giving Musharraf his ticket out of Pakistan. But if the judiciary were to do this, then they might have the fig leaf they need and become pragmatic enough to let go of Musharraf.
On its part, the judiciary is also caught in a bit of a bind. It has been trying to project itself as a fearless and independent institution which can no longer be pushed around by either the government or the military. If the judiciary were to allow a man indicted on charges of treason to leave the country, it would severely compromise its credibility. The judges are pragmatic enough to know the limits of their power when it comes to dealing with the top brass of the army. The Missing Persons case stands testimony to this reality – the judges are all fire and brimstone against the army and intelligence agencies in the Missing Persons case but have desisted from taking any stringent action against any top military official. And so, while they would not be averse to see the back of Musharraf, they wouldn’t like to be the ones to make that call and would rather that the government did it. This is the reason why they have thrown the ECL ball in the government’s court.
The Pakistan Army is not very happy to see its former chief being dragged through the courts. Until now the generals have held their peace because this is a situation that Musharraf brought upon himself by returning to Pakistan against all advice, even entreaties, of the army. Even so, they have intervened in their own way to protect Musharraf and save him from humiliation. Initially, bombs would conveniently be discovered near Musharraf’s farm-house and this was used to justify his absence from court. Then he was spirited away to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology where he was kept for weeks on grounds of a palpably fake heart condition. Only once he was taken from the hospital to the court, but that too after receiving an assurance that he won’t be indicted. But this subterfuge couldn’t work indefinitely and in recent days had become a cause for embarrassment for the government, the judiciary and even the army. Senior ministers had started making statements about how the army was losing face by protecting Musharraf. The judges were losing face because of the flagrant violation of orders and repeated non-appearance of the accused. With their hand forced, they had to issue non-bailable warrants, which finally forced Musharraf to appear for his indictment.
The point is that the army was no longer in a position to resist the judicial order, unless of course it wanted to enter into an open confrontation with the government and judiciary. The implication of this is that the compulsions of each of the players could force them to adopt a path which leads Musharraf either to the goal or the gallows. The choice before the army at that point will be to either lump it or else move against the government and judiciary, and either destabilise it or overthrow it. The question is whether the army will be willing to risk the stability of the country for just one individual. More importantly, will the army be willing to move back into the saddle for running the state and risk unpopularity among the people only to bail out a former chief? Unless Nawaz Sharif makes a complete hash of things, chances are that the army will find it difficult to overthrow his government because of the treatment meted out to Musharraf. This means that while they may not like what happens to Musharraf, they will find themselves constrained to act against the government to save him.
A lot will however depend on which sides holds its nerves in the tension that will inevitably build up if the trial proceeds beyond the indictment stage. If the government holds its nerve, the army might well be left with no choice but to see Musharraf being out through the grind. On the other hand, if the government loses its nerve, then Musharraf could win his freedom, but have to reconcile to spending the rest of his life or at least the better part of it in exile. It would therefore appear that Musharraf isn’t quite out of the woods just yet.