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Pakistan to pursue treason case

by SALMAN MASOOD New York Times News Service on November 18, 2013 10:00 AM

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s government said Sunday that it was initiating a treason prosecution of the country’s former ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in what would be a groundbreaking if politically charged assertion of civilian supremacy over the powerful Pakistani military.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that the government had asked the Supreme Court to establish a special panel to try Musharraf on accusations that he subverted the constitution in late 2007 when he imposed emergency rule and fired much of the judiciary.

The military has ruled Pakistan for about half of the country’s 66-year history, and no ruler or top military commander had ever been held to account by a court until Musharraf’s return from exile in April.

Since then, he has faced criminal prosecution in four cases related to his time in power.

But a treason prosecution would sharply raise the stakes between civilian and military leaders — the charge carries a potential death penalty — and, analysts warned Sunday, could cast the country into new political turmoil.

“It is a can of worms,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and respected political commentator. “It is really absurd.”

The decision to proceed against Musharraf comes at a tough time for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government is facing increasing scrutiny for its handling of the economy, foreign relations and security. And personally, Sharif, who is visiting Thailand, has been criticized for his frequent foreign tours even as Pakistan has faced struggle after struggle.

On Friday, at least nine people were killed and 50 were wounded in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to the capital, as sectarian riots broke out between Shiite and Sunni groups.

The violence led the government to clamp a two-day curfew on the city, suspend mobile phone services and bring out troops in several other cities to quell tensions.

And relations with the United States are under strain over accusations that a U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud sabotaged nascent peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.

With such a turbulent political environment as a backdrop, the sudden announcement of treason charges brought immediate questions and criticism.

“What we saw today was a political decision,” said Fahd Hussain, the director of news at Express News television network. “It was important for Nawaz Sharif to be seen to deliver on his past pledges.”

What seems clear, at least, is that Sharif’s government wanted to prevent Musharraf from slipping out of Pakistan into exile. Musharraf, a former army chief, had been under house arrest at his villa outside Islamabad until earlier this month, when he was released on bail on all cases and later requested permission to go to Dubai to visit his mother.

Lawyers for Musharraf are due to make a court application today to have him taken off an official list that prevents him from leaving Pakistan. A treason prosecution would result in new restrictions on Musharraf’s movements, although it remains unclear how quickly the Supreme Court would move today.

In a statement on Sunday, Musharraf’s office described the treason charges as a “vicious attempt to undermine the Pakistan military” and a “botched attempt” to divert attention from the country’s other problems.

Babar Sattar, a lawyer and columnist with the English-language daily Dawn, said that Sharif appeared to be betting that the army would not stop the judiciary from trying Musharraf in open court.

“I think Nawaz realizes that Musharraf is a bygone for the army,” he said. “He wants to fix him but does not want to give an impression that it is revenge.”

Musharraf’s supporters say the law is being applied selectively, pointing out that many senior justices, including the country’s crusading chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, validated the 1999 coup that brought the military ruler to power. Chaudhry was among the judges fired by Musharraf during the state of emergency, and later became a rallying point for opposition to the former general’s rule.

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