The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Musharraf sentence sends a powerful message to Pakistan’s military

Supporters of former president Pervez Musharraf protest in Karachi, Pakistan, on Wednesday. (Shahzaib Akber/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a senior fellow at New America.

Easily corruptible, dominated by dynastic politics and weakened by decades of repeated military coups, Pakistan’s democracy still finds a way to fight back when it wants to make a point. And what a point it made this week when a Pakistani court sentenced former military ruler Pervez Musharraf to death for high treason for suspending the constitution in 2007. The ruling marks the first time in Pakistani history that a military general is held accountable for undermining democracy. It also boldly states that no matter how powerful or influential, the military is not above the law.

Before Musharraf, Pakistan endured two earlier periods of military rule. General Ayub Khan led a coup in 1958 and ran Pakistan for 11 years until he was forced to step down. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government in 1977 and ruled until he died in a 1988 plane crash.

Instead of ending in legal accountability or hurting the military’s reputation, periods of military rule burnished the image of the generals as the “saviors” of the nation. The military relies on this narrative to justify its extra-constitutional activities — and it can be heard today in the military’s objection to the ruling on Musharraf. A Pakistani army spokesperson responded that a man who “served the country for over 40 years, fought wars for the defense of the country can surely never be a traitor.”

Musharraf’s achievements in opening up Pakistan’s media environment and normalizing dialogue with India won him some praise, but his policies also earned him many enemies. Pakistani politicians and the public alike still criticize him for his alliance with the United States in fighting al-Qaeda and for his handling of domestic militancy.

But caving to U.S. pressure wouldn’t prove to be Musharraf’s fatal flaw. Rather, his persistent confrontations with the judiciary and then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who challenged the legality of his position, set him upon his current path.

Musharraf’s death sentence tells a bigger story beyond political rivalries. The sentence comes against a backdrop of intense military dominance over economic and security policy during the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, which many perceive as a way to pressure him to stay on the right side of the generals, who wield considerable ability to weaken or strengthen Khan’s political standing.

In parlor rooms across Pakistan, members of the political elite claim the military is “stronger than ever” — so powerful that a coup isn’t necessary. Underlying such hyperbole are legitimate complaints about pervasive state oppression of media, clamping down of civil society and the military-approved economic activity of the Chinese at the expense of ordinary Pakistanis.

Ultimately, it was the government’s recent decision to grant General Qamar Javed Bajwa a three-year extension as the chief of army staff that put both Khan and the military in the crosshairs of the judiciary. After an initial hold on the appointment, the courts granted only a six-month extension but only after holding the military accountable to judicial oversight.

It’s worth noting that the Pakistani courts played a role in legitimizing past coups. But since the Musharraf era, the judiciary has challenged its own history with measures to hold both civilian and military leaders accountable for flouting democratic norms.

Musharraf, who currently resides in the United Arab Emirates, is not expected to return to Pakistan for sentencing, and it’s unclear whether the Emirati government would return him as part of their extradition treaty with Pakistan. The uncertainty shouldn’t take away from the symbolism of the ruling, which alters the very identity and legacy of the Pakistani military.

With Musharraf’s ruling, Pakistan’s judiciary has taken a bold and historic action to assert civilian authority when it is strikingly absent in the federal government. Given Khan’s keen survival instinct, a reassertion of civilian authority is unlikely to emerge. It was not a surprise when the government declared the Musharraf ruling void. But Khan should take note: Dismissing the judiciary didn’t end well for Musharraf, and should he continue on his current path, it won’t end well for him either.

Read more:

Mehreen Zahra-Malik: Who’s afraid of Imran Khan’s Pakistan? Almost everyone.

Steven Butler: Why Pakistan’s crackdown on the press is getting worse by the day

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