Musharraf misses his day in court

Posted in Pakistan | 30-Jul-09 | Author: Sami Moubayed| Source: Asia Times

Pervez Musharraf

ISLAMABAD - Former Pakistani president, retired General Pervez Musharraf, was due to appear in the Supreme Court court in Islamabad on Wednesday to explain why he fired the country's top judiciary and imposed emergency rule in November 2007.

Musharraf, though, who now lives in exile in England, did not respond to the non-binding order issued last week by a 14-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, the chief justice whom Musharraf suspended in March 2007, which sparked a judicial crisis culminating in the sacking of the judiciary and the imposition of emergency rule.

Musharraf was not represented as the court began proceedings on Wednesday. "No one represented him because he has not received the summons," Bloomberg quoted Muhammad Ali Saif, Musharraf's attorney, as saying. "Until he gets the court summons, he doesn't legally need representation. When he gets it, we will defend."

No charges have been laid against Musharraf; the court has called for his presence for talks that could form the basis of prosecution. There have been many calls for Musharraf to be tried for high treason for allegedly subverting the constitution.

The bold move to make Musharraf accountable - the first time this has happened to a former military ruler in the country's history - most likely is the end game in any bid by the former dictator to stage a comeback as both the military and the United States have distanced themselves from him. Yet the case could still have reverberations all the way to the top of the military establishment.

Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, controversially became the US's pointman in the "war on terror" when he aligned Pakistan with Washington after September 11, 2001, in the process abandoning the Taliban.

The resignation of Musharraf as president on August 18, 2008, to avoid impeachment proceedings, was so abrupt that it raised many questions. The biggest was whether the old guard of the former regime would be used by the US as a vehicle to further its designs in the region, possibly even through a coup. These fears were allayed with the installation last year of a civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, which now does Washington's bidding.

In his initial response to last Wednesday's court decision to summons Musharraf, Attorney General Sardar Latif Khosa said the government was not in a position to defend him. "It is in the sharia, the constitution and the Supreme Court's judgement that every person should be given the right to defend himself."

The visiting US envoy with responsibility for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, said in categorical words that the former president was history and the US would not rescue him.

Musharraf quit as chief of army staff on November 28, 2007, under a US-brokered deal with former premier Benazir Bhutto. This turned out to be a bad decision as the assassination of Bhutto in December 2007 changed the whole situation and Musharraf was on the way to becoming yesterday's man: the US no longer supported him and the military began to see him as a liability. New army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kiani issued a notification that all army officers should stay away from political figures.

Further, Kiani called on Nawaz Sharif, whose government Musharraf ousted in 1999, and assured him there was no grudge in the army against him and that all past bitterness should be forgotten with Musharraf leaving the top army post.

At the same time, Kiani played a significant role this March in resolving the dispute over for the restoration of Chaudhary and other judges sacked by Musharraf.

There is now considerable speculation on whether Musharraf will be left to face the music alone, or whether other people will be called to account for the imposition of the emergency in 2007 and other events.

A constitutional expert, Hamid Khan, has commented that the case will not open a Pandora's box, but the fact is that Musharraf signed the emergency order as chief of army staff and it is documented that he took the decision after a Corps Commanders' meeting attended by then-vice chief of army staff, Kiani, besides other corps commanders, some of whom still hold powerful positions.

This alone will stir debate in the courtroom on the role of the military as an institution - the institution that was strongly behind Musharraf throughout his time in power. There is no escaping that when Chaudhary was summoned by Musharraf for his resignation in March 2007, the general's chief advisors included Kiani (then the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence) and now-Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj (then director general of Military Intelligence). They were present at the meeting at which Chaudhary was pressed to resign.

"All of Musharraf's illegal actions will be discussed, which include forced disappearances, one of the major causes for the sacking of Iftikhar Chaudhary," retired squadron leader Khalid Khawaja told Asia Times Online, referring to Chaudhary's zeal in making the authorities accountable for missing people. Khawaja is a flagbearer of the campaign for the release of detainees who have been held for years in detention centers without trial. Most of them are suspected of being linked to al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Khawaja has also filed applications to register a case against Musharraf over the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident of July 2007 in which security forces stormed the radical mosque and killed a number of militants who had sought sanctuary there.

Khawaja has applied to make the entire Islamabad administration and then-corps commander of Rawalpindi, Tariq Majeed - now chairman of the Joints Chief of Army Staff - co-accused in the case. "Even if these people have retired, we have to pursue the cases against them," Khawaja said.

It is not unthinkable that Khawaja's case will proceed. The judiciary, since being restored, has become increasingly activist, challenging government decisions in all spheres of life - from electricity rates to fuel price increases.

Should this happen, and top military people feel the heat, there is always the possibility of a coup to displace the US-backed coalition of secular and liberal political parties led by Zardari. This has been the standard way, with the army governing for 32 of Pakistan's 62 years.

It's a long shot, but Musharraf's missed day in court may yet turn out to be a day to remember.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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