ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, scheduled to face charges of high treason this week before a special tribunal, on Sunday adamantly defended his decision to suspend the constitution in 2007, an act that has led to the spectacle of a onetime military ruler being brought before civilian courts in a country long dominated by the army.
In his first interview with foreign journalists since being released from house arrest in November, Musharraf, 70, said the prosecution “smacked of a vendetta” by the government. The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is the same politician Musharraf ousted as prime minister in a 1999 coup; Sharif was tried for murder and treason and sent into lengthy exile.
Musharraf veered between jocular retorts and emotional pleas in the lengthy meeting at his country mansion, decorated with ceremonial swords and rifles, near the Pakistani capital. He refused to say whether he would appear in court Wednesday as required, but his comments previewed likely defense arguments in an extraordinary case that has raised fears of new strains in Pakistan’s delicate balance of civilian and military power.
“Where is the treason?” Musharraf demanded, asserting that he had acted with support from top civilian and military officials when he declared the 2007 state of emergency and that all his actions in his nine years as president had been patriotic rather than self-
serving. “I have done so much for my country and for the people of Pakistan. Is this what I deserve?”
Musharraf depicted his short-lived 2007 crackdown as needed to stop an overambitious judiciary from interfering in his efforts to combat Islamist terrorism and extremism. But his actions were viewed by many as a dictatorial tool to cling to power. The resulting wave of protests forced him to resign as army chief, hold new elections and step down from office in 2008.
For more than four years the former ruler lived in self-
imposed exile, but he returned in March in a bid for a political comeback. Instead, he found himself facing charges of murder in two political assassinations and a 2007 military raid on a fundamentalist mosque, as well as treason charges related to the state of emergency. If convicted of treason, he could face the death penalty or life in prison.
Although Musharraf insisted he had no fear of facing the courts and no intention of trying to flee the country, his attorneys have filed several petitions claiming that the judicial proceeding is biased and unconstitutional, which Musharraf hinted might keep him from appearing in court. More significantly, the retired general tried to depict the charges against him as a broader effort to attack the military as a whole.
“The army has always been the center of gravity in Pakistan,” he said. “Whoever does wrong against the army chief certainly causes disturbance in the military ranks.” But Musharraf did not repeat a previous comment that the prosecution is a “vicious attempt to undermine the Pakistani military.” Instead, he said he would rather not speculate on how the army views his case.
Some Pakistani analysts have noted that the current army leadership is not personally committed to Musharraf and should not feel threatened by the charges against him. Others have warned that if the case drags on through appeals, it could embroil other former officials and lead to increasing unrest in a powerful military establishment that has repeatedly intervened in civilian rule.
Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst here, said the attempt to try Musharraf in civilian courts is an “extraordinary leap” in asserting civilian control. “In principle, it is justified, because if democracy is to take root, it will make the possibility of coups more remote,” he said. “But the government must be careful to control the fallout and keep military morale high.”
Government critics have suggested that the sudden decision to prosecute Musharraf is a dramatic show to distract the public from Pakistan’s multiple crises and ailments — from severe power shortages and high unemployment to conflicts with Washington over drone strikes, which have plagued the Sharif government since it took office in June.
Musharraf seemed to both rue and relish the woes facing his former nemesis, and to cling to an illusion of his own popularity. He said his heart “weeps” for Pakistan and its increasingly dire economic conditions, but he insisted that if he had been allowed to run for office this year, he would have been able to steer his country back on course.
For all his efforts to sound jovial and benign, the aging retired general could not resist slipping into military metaphors. Asked why he had taken the risk to return to Pakistan, he replied: “I was a commander, and the first lesson you learn is to kill or be killed. . . . It still runs deep in my blood.”