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The army is the key to stability in Pakistan

High treason carries the death penalty but that is unlikely in the case of Musharraf

Only weeks after Nawaz Sharif’s swearing-in as Prime Minister, is Pakistan once again heading towards a dangerous confrontation between the elected government and the military? That is the fear prompted by Mr Sharif’s declaration in parliament yesterday that Pervez Musharraf, the army chief-of-staff who ousted him from power in a coup in 1999 and then eight years later imposed emergency rule, was liable to be tried for high treason, which can be punishable by death. “Musharraf violated the constitution twice,” Mr Sharif said. “He will have to answer for his actions before the court.”

For those tempted to see Pakistani politics as an unending revenge tragedy, this was merely the next act. Mr Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan for nine years after the coup and then went into exile after being defeated in elections, was guilty of hubris in returning to his homeland in February with the hope of getting back into power, this time through the ballot box. Mr Sharif, himself forced into exile by Mr Musharraf, was the agent of nemesis. And who could say with any certainty that the malign chain of events would end there? The first dire act in this drama, after all, was the hanging of the hugely popular Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, by army chief and dictator Zia ul-Haq. How bitterly appropriate – how satisfactory in dramatic terms – if an elected premier should now turn the tables.

But although Article 6 of Pakistan’s constitution allows for the execution of a person guilty of high treason, that is an unlikely outcome. Unlike certain other Islamic countries, there have been few cases of capital punishment in Pakistan in recent years. And the real import of yesterday’s announcement is that Pakistan is moving in a significant and hopeful new direction.

The key figure in that positive movement is neither Mr Sharif nor Mr Musharraf but General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief of staff, who declared back in 2008 that the army would stay out of politics and who has kept that promise. General Kayani strongly urged Mr Musharraf to remain in exile, avoided army interference in the recent elections, and has been rewarded by witnessing the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistani history.

If Mr Musharraf does go on trial, it is reasonable to expect that General Kayani will remain equally phlegmatic. Voices of protest from inside the military may make life uncomfortable for him, but aside from the constitutional justness of putting the former dictator on trial, General Kayani may profit from a sense within the army that Mr Musharraf conceded far too much to the US in the war on terror. And if Mr Musharraf is duly found guilty, that will be almost as important a precedent for Pakistan as the success of the recent elections. It will put an important new obstacle in the way of any future Musharraf dreaming of a coup d’etat.

The importance of such a development – of a relationship between the government and the army in which there is for the first time a modicum of trust – was underlined by the appalling terrorist crime at the weekend in which militants belonging to the Pakistani Taliban killed nine foreign climbers in the Himalayas. A Taliban spokesman claimed that this was their way of protesting against deaths from American drone attacks. The impact will be keenly felt in Pakistan, delivering a disastrous blow to the last surviving element of the tourist industry, and throwing its vital relations with China into crisis. More than ever Pakistan needs its elected representatives and its military to work in concert. A sober and successful prosecution of Mr Musharraf will greatly improve the chances of that.