A few years ago he was being described by then US President George Bush as a man who "truly is somebody who believes in democracy." But today Pakistan’s former dictator Pervez Musharraf is getting ready to face charges for treason over the emergency rule he imposed in 2007 which saw the suspension of the country’s constitution, sacking of senior judges, arrest of thousands of people and private news channels being forcibly taken off air. What is significant is this is the first time in the country’s history a former head of the military is being put on trial for treason.
The big mystery of course is what in the world possessed Musharraf to return to Pakistan earlier this year where he has now been placed under house-arrest? One of the jokes is his fans on Facebook, some of whom like to call his “sir” and “hero”, had been egging the man to come back. More likely it is that life in exile in London and Dubai didn’t turn out to be glamorous enough for the former General and he was missing being in the limelight of Pakistani politics. Well if that was his wish, it seems to have come true. His trial for treason certainly has become the talk of the town.
But it is not just charges over imposing emergency rule in the country, the man has a queue of angry people lining up to seek justice for his actions while he was in office. A major grievance against the former dictator is for signing-up Pakistan to the so-called War against Terror. During his time in office thousands of people – “suspected” terrorists and political opponents – went missing. It has been alleged that under Musharraf's watch some of these “suspects” were handed over to the Americans. The whereabouts of many others remains missing today, and are believed to having been tortured and held in secret jail.
That is not all. Remarkably he recently admitted in an interview with CNN to having given permission to the US to carry out drone strikes in the country on “very few” occasions. The strikes may have been few initially, but they appear to have set the scene for more aggressive and wide-ranging drone operations by the CIA.
He has also been arrested in connection with the assassination of two prominent political figures. One was Nawab Akbar Khan Bhugti, a prominent Baloch nationalist who was killed in a military operation in 2006 which led to such an outpouring of anger in the country. An even more prominent killing was that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto over which Musharraf is now being considered a suspect.
In fairness there have been all kinds of wild theories about who may have been behind the killing. But the former dictator did not help his own case by presiding over a government which has been accused of serous security lapses. A former American speech-writer and friend of Bhutto, Mark Siegel, has written about how he witnessed her receiving a threatening phone call from the former dictator during a meeting: “She was visibly shaken when she hung up the phone: Musharraf had threatened her with dire consequences if she returned to Pakistan to lead her Pakistan Peoples Party in the upcoming elections, where she was the major threat to defeat him. Bhutto quoted him as saying that she would be responsible for what happened to her.”
Some of Musharraf’s backers compare his term in office to the failings of the current President Asif Ali Zardari , who was popularly called "Mr. Ten Per Cent" over accusations of widespread kickbacks and corruption. Zardari’s miserable record in office is often used as proof that his predecessor’s era was much better. Yet Zardari arguably came to power in part due to the unwitting help of Musharraf. In 2007 Musharraf issued a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which was brokered by the US government, and granted amnesty to many of the country’s leading corrupt politicians.
In light of all these grievances against him, the mystery of why Musharraf chose to come back to Pakistan and face the music only deepens. He planned to run in the elections but was barred – tragic because if he had been allowed maybe the reality of his lack of mass appeal beyond Facebook would have sunk in sooner.
Now the major concern is that the charge of treason levelled against him could be expanded to include other names, high profile figures within the military and politicians, who were said to have been consulted when the former dictator imposed emergency rule in 2007. Others argue a trial should also be held for the whole military coup of 1999 which could turn into a real witch-hunt.
At present the country is already facing some grave challenges, and it is far from clear that the newly elected government of Nawaz Sharif can solve these with a trial of Musharraf. There is a serious energy crisis in Pakistan with big cities suffering from power-cuts in blistering heat. A priority for the state should be to complete a major pipeline which will carry gas from Iran to Pakistan. The project has faced stiff opposition and even threatened sanctions from Washington. There are also terrorist attacks, CIA drone strikes, economic malaise and the country’s poor educational infrastructure. A trial of Musharraf should not be allowed to become a media circus which diverts attention from these serious issues.
And yet, a trial of the former dictator could bring is to act as deterrent against future military coups. A large part of Pakistan’s near 66-year history has been wasted languishing under so-called “patriotic” dictators who had overthrown elected governments. Attaching the word 'traitor' to the name of this former General could help create a different future.