Nation & World

Once Pakistan’s strongman, Pervez Musharraf holed up at farm in test of country’s democracy

From October 1999 to February 2008, Pervez Musharraf held unequaled power in Pakistan as the country’s dictatorial president and a key ally in the United States’ war on terror. President George W. Bush was considered a close personal friend.

On Thursday, however, Musharraf was holed up at his farmhouse in Islamabad’s Chak Shahzad suburb after a high court denied him a bail extension and ordered his arrest in one of a plethora of cases outstanding against him.

Several hundred police, backed by federal paramilitary troops and anti-terrorist squads, sealed off the area around the residence for much of the day before withdrawing, apparently after Musharraf was declared under house arrest and his house made a temporary jail under the administration of officials from the Adiala prison in adjacent Rawalpindi.

As Musharraf sweated it out at the farmhouse, Pakistan’s caretaker government contemplated whether to bring Musharraf to trial. The country’s Supreme Court has ordered it to do so – or the court will take action on its own.

Thursday’s developments were the latest in a series of body blows to Musharraf, who returned from exile in March in an effort – many thought misguided – to regain some sort of status in Pakistan’s political system. Instead, he found that over the five years since he’d been forced to step down as president, Pakistan had become a vibrant democracy in which no one institution, including the army, can call the shots.

On Tuesday, Musharraf was disqualified from running for office in next month’s general elections. He’d already been barred from leaving Pakistan because of serious charges initiated while he lived in exile from 2009.

Musharraf’s lawyers had not expected the court to deny him a bail extension – the initial bail had been granted to allow his return – and the stunned former president had to be hustled away by bodyguards to avoid arrest on the premises. A cavalcade of armored cars effected the former president’s high-speed getaway to his farmhouse.

The court later issued an order demanding that the police explain why he wasn’t seized before he left the courthouse and that action be taken “against those police officials who remained napping instead of performing their duty.”

Since Musharraf returned to Pakistan in late March, Pakistan’s caretaker government has been under mounting media pressure to launch prosecutions against him for cases ranging from treason to murder. However, it has balked at the prospect of taking on the former dictator, largely because Pakistan’s powerful military would be severely embarrassed.

The military has ruled Pakistan for half its 65-year existence, with Musharraf leading the fourth junta. The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, still exercises a virtual veto on foreign and defense policy, but in principle he supports the current 5-year-old democratic process and is watching a second consecutive election campaign from the sidelines.

The scene was a far cry from Musharraf’s heyday after he overthrow the country’s elected government in 1999. By the summer of 2006, he seemed on the verge of cutting a peace deal with India, with which Pakistan had fought three wars since the two countries attained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Then he started making mistakes that turned Pakistani public opinion against him. In 2006, army units killed Akbar Bugti, a veteran politician leading a low-intensity insurgency in the vast but sparsely populated province of Balochistan, which borders southern Afghanistan and Iran.

Musharraf now faces murder charges for the killing, in which he denies involvement.

His next error was to fire Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and other defiant Supreme Court judges in 2007 and have them placed under house arrest. In doing so, he gave Pakistan’s political opposition a rallying cause.

A once sympathetic media turned hostile after Musharraf restrained it from covering the mounting judiciary-led opposition and closed non-compliant cable news channels, including Geo News, the market leader.

Musharraf’s gravest political error, however, was to risk all by returning to Pakistan, a decision that baffled the country’s political commentators and apparently was taken against the advice of army chief Kayani. When ignored, Kayani was instrumental, with the assistance of the influential governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in persuading the mainstream political party leaders not to push for his prosecution.

But by the time he returned, Chaudhry had been back on the bench for years. It was Musharraf’s imprisonment of the Supreme Court justices that sparked the charges being heard in the Islamabad high court on Thursday.

Musharraf now faces the daunting prospect of a treason trial, for his illegal 1999 overthrow of an elected government led by Nawaz Sharif, then the prime minister, who was first imprisoned and then forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party is expected to win the most seats in the May 11 election and form the next government.

But Musharraf’s fate may rest in the hands of the Supreme Court judges he sacked in 2007. Ominously, the court on Wednesday ruled that if the caretaker government did not exercise its executive authority to set up a special tribunal to hear treason charges against Musharraf by Monday, then the court would.

Musharraf’s lawyer, Ahmad Kasuri, has sought to exploit the awkward position of the military, saying any prosecution would necessitate charges of aiding and abetting against many army generals for endorsing the 1999 coup and other unconstitutional acts. But whether that will be enough for Kayani to interfere in the events now playing out remains to be seen.