Will Musharraf’s treason trial help democracy in Pakistan?

Published: November 19, 2013
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This is the first time that a civilian institution has the opportunity to challenge a military dictator who monopolized power through unlawful acts for nearly a decade. PHOTO: AFP

Dictators and enemies of democracy would do well to listen to the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda’s advice,

 “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.”

It was more than a decade after the country’s first democratically elected popular leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged by a dictator that his daughter, Benazir Bhutto returned with an impressive mandate.

Today, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has returned to the political driving seat after a decade, with almost a clear majority while the dictator who ousted him from power, lingers in a sub-jail. In an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Sharif’s government has initiated a case of high treason against the former military ruler under Article 6 of the Constitution. Many state leaders have been prosecuted and indicted by domestic as well as international courts throughout the world, especially in more recent times.

In the aftermath of the Darfur Crisis in Sudan for instance, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on the grounds of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Similarly, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia was charged for war crimes during the Kosovo war of 1999 while President Charles Taylor of Liberia was indicted in 2003 for committing atrocities in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

However, the decision to put a military general and former president on trial for his unlawful acts is certainly a first in Pakistan’s history. While the decision itself is commendable and is likely to strengthen the democratic process in Pakistan that has been hampered by frequent military interventions, it is the timing of the decision that has put the entire nation in a state of shock.

Political parties and social media have termed the government’s decision to invoke Article 6 against Musharraf a ‘tactic to divert public attention from sectarian unrest’.  Their argument is that Pakistan has a long history of constitutional subversion and hence, Musharraf can be allowed to run free like others before him, since there are other more serious problems confronting the country.

In response to this argument, what we need to understand is that Musharraf’s trial is not just about him — it is about the supremacy of rule of law over any individual, whether he/she is a civilian, politician or in uniform. It is about setting a precedent in Pakistan that everyone will be held accountable to the law and no one can enjoy legal impunity simply because they happen to be in a position of power.

Musharraf’s trial is about changing the mindset of the nation.

Nonetheless, it is ironic that each military intervention in Pakistan has been justified on the pretext of different brands of democracy.

Ayub Khan called it ‘Basic Democracy’, while Ziaul Haq conceived ‘Islamic Democracy’ and Musharraf envisioned the ‘real’ democracy through ‘enlightened moderation’. However, in order to do justice to the constitution, it is imperative that the process begin from the beginning. All those who have abrogated the constitution in the past must also be taken to task instead of limiting it only to Musharraf.

 Iskander Mirza

We must begin with October 8, 1958 when President Iskander Mirza declared the first martial law in the country’s history. He abrogated the constitution, dismissed the central and provincial governments and dissolved the national assemblies of East and West Pakistan.

This act set the stage for recurring periods of martial law in Pakistan.

General Yahya

General Yahya placed the country under martial law on March 25, 1969 immediately after receiving the reins of power from President Ayub.

He abrogated the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and assumed the office of Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA).

Ziaul Haq

Unlike his predecessors, Ziaul Haq chose not to abrogate the constitution but held it in abeyance. Similarly, when Musharraf took over power, he held the constitution in abeyance, suspended the National Assembly, Provincial Assemblies and the Senate, and became President of Pakistan. Moreover, Musharraf held the constitution in abeyance for the second time on November 3, 2007 when he announced an emergency in the country.

Our history shows how much we have experimented with the constitution. Democracy has shown its head in Pakistan after a long time and for more than 65 years the military has believed, and led the common man to believe, that it is meant to rule the country and that democracy is what it defines it to be.

What has made matters worse is that each military political experiment has further debased the political institutions in the country, but none of these experiments have ever been challenged.

This is the first time that a civilian institution has the opportunity to challenge a military dictator who monopolised power through unlawful acts for nearly a decade.

Perhaps, this will set the course for Pakistan and allow it to evolve as a progressive, lawful, democratic state.

Unless of course, there is another political twist awaiting the country.

Kashif Ali

Kashif Ali

The writer holds Masters in governance and public policy from Germany and works in the development sector. He tweets as @s_kashif8 (twitter.com/s_kashif8)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.