NEW DELHI: In a country where the army rules the roost, the irony surrounding the death sentence awarded to former Pakistani military dictator, Pervez Musharraf is inescapable. The sentence by a special court in Islamabad on Tuesday was on the basis of a case filed by the general’s bitter enemy Nawaz Sharif, whose legally elected government he had ousted in a coup in October 1999.
Musharraf’s sentencing is the second body blow to the all-powerful army, at least on the face of it, this week. It comes just a day after the Supreme Court allowed the country’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa a six-month conditional extension but not before warning that “unbridled power or position, like unstructured discretion, is dangerous.”
Pakistan’s armed forces made clear their unhappiness with the verdict. A statement issued on Wednesday evening by Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesperson of the Inter Services Press Relations (ISPR) said the special court’s decision “has been received with a lot of pain and anguish by rank and file of Pakistan’s Armed Forces.”
The statement went on to acknowledge that Musharraf as “An ex-Army chief, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee and President of Pakistan who has served the country for over 40 years, fought wars for the defence of the country can surely never be a traitor.”
For a nation where the civilian-military relationship has been at times fraught and at other times mutually beneficial, the sentencing of a former army chief who ruled Pakistan from October 1999 to 2008, is unprecedented. But it is not in the same genre as the execution of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in April 1979 by a court operating under martial law and under the basilisk glare of the late Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.
Musharraf is unlikely to be executed as he has been in exile in Dubai for many years and is unlikely to return. There is also an appeals process which is expected to get underway soon.
As for the Pakistan SC’s ruling on current army chief General Bajwa’s extension, it came after the Imran Khan-led Pakistan government sought to extend his term by another three years. The extension had been announced in July this year and Khan’s government sought to make it formal by issuing a notification towards November end. But his plan unravelled after a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, admitted a petition challenging Bajwa’s extension.
In a country where the military is seen as all-powerful and the ruler in real terms, it is noteworthy that the SC told the government this was not permissible under the existing rules of either the army or the Constitution. When the government sought to justify the extension on the grounds that the regional security situation demanded it, the court responded by saying it was the army’s job to deal with such situations and by that measure, everyone should be given one.
Both verdicts will give hope to those in Pakistan who have long sought an end to the army’s pernicious influence over the country’s politics, politicians and institutions. But don’t expect the army to give up so easily.