ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government announced Sunday that it intends to try former military ruler Pervez Musharraf for “high treason,” a dramatic escalation of the charges he has faced since he returned from exile this year.
Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the government will name a special prosecutor on Monday to try Musharraf for invoking emergency rule during his 1999-2008 dictatorship.
If a special judicial panel agrees to proceed, it will mark the first time that Pakistan has tried someone on charges of high treason, defined as conspiring to “abrogate or subvert or suspend” the country’s constitution.
“We have made this decision in the national interest,” said Khan, noting that Musharraf suspended Parliament and the judiciary when he imposed emergency rule in 2007. “Musharraf is accountable before the nation and the constitution,” the interior minister added.
The news signals the growing confidence of Pakistan’s civilian government after decades of political upheaval, including three coups. But the decision by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government could fuel new discord in the country, where some residents still look back at Musharraf’s tenure as one of relative security and economic stability.
Musharraf led a 1999 military coup that drove Sharif from the prime minister’s post. He also led his country through the turbulent aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which resulted in the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. When the courts and politicians began to challenge Musharraf's authority, he effectively imposed martial law in 2007 by dismissing the chief justice of the Supreme Court and ordering the detention of several other judges.
After he stepped down in late 2008, Musharraf went into self-imposed exile in London. He returned to Pakistan in March and was quickly charged in a string of cases, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and a 2007 military siege of a mosque in Islamabad housing radical Islamic students.
After Sharif returned as prime minister in June, analysts wondered whether he had the appetite for prolonging Musharraf’s legal woes.
By interjecting his government into the matter, Sharif risks alienating the country’s powerful military leaders, some of whom quietly resent the legal humiliation facing their former chief. Musharraf spent six months under house arrest this year for the other charges but was released on bail about two weeks ago.
If he is tried and convicted of treason, he will be subject to the death penalty.
Aasia Ishaque, a spokeswoman for Musharraf, accused Sharif’s government of using the case to deflect attention from the nation’s challenges, including deadly sectarian violence over the weekend near Islamabad, the capital.
“The government is unable to get control, so they decided to bring up Musharraf again,” Ishaque said. “This is a diversion.”
On Friday, the country was shaken when Shiites and Sunnis clashed in Rawalpindi during a demonstration marking the Shiite holy month of Muharram.
At least nine people were killed and more than 60 were wounded, many by gunfire. A Sunni mosque was torched. To restore order, the army imposed a two-day curfew in Rawalpindi and cut off cellphone service in dozens of other cities.
Craig reported from Kabul.