In December, when former President Gen Pervez Musharraf was handed a guilty verdict by a Special Court in a treason case and handed the death penalty, it seemed that Pakistan’s all-powerful military was being made accountable for its actions at last. That flicker of hope has been all but snuffed out by the Lahore High Court, which has overturned the Special Court verdict. In its decision on Monday, the Lahore High Court maintained that the filing of the complaint, the constitution of the Special Court, the selection of the prosecution team and the trial process were illegal. Hence, the Special Court verdict against Musharraf was “unconstitutional,” it said. Few in Pakistan expected the death penalty to be implemented or even the guilty verdict against Musharraf to be upheld by the higher judiciary. The military wields enormous power over all of Pakistan’s institutions and has never tolerated any challenge or criticism of the generals’ violation of the Constitution, their misuse of power or corruption. The indictment in 2014 was a highly significant moment in a country where the military has held sway for much of its independent history, with no other military leader ever facing such legal consequences for their actions. When the verdict finally came in December, it was strongly opposed by both the military and the current government. But the penalty was unlikely to be carried out. Gen Musharraf, who has always denied any wrongdoing, was allowed to leave Pakistan in 2016 on medical grounds and is in Dubai where he is receiving medical treatment.
It has sought to project itself as the ultimate guardian of Pakistan’s interests and has even justified its coups and ill-advised adventurism against India by selling this argument. Hitherto, it was the military that decided who is a traitor. That changed with the Special Court verdict. A traitor verdict against one of their own was unacceptable to the military, a stain on the image it has sought to project of itself for decades. This had to be shot down immediately. It is likely that the military, with the active connivance of the Imran Khan government, forced the Lahore High Court to throw out the special court verdict against Musharraf. As expected, the military flexed its muscles and the Lahore Court fell in line. In its verdict, the court said that high treason and subversion of the Constitution – the crimes Musharraf was said to have committed while he was President in 2007 – were “a joint offence” that “cannot be undertaken by a single person.”
It got Musharraf off the hook. By overturning the groundbreaking verdict of the special court, the Lahore High Court has thrown away an opportunity to make the Pakistani military accountable for its actions. Apparently, Musharraf can still be retried in another court. However, Pakistani analysts say that this is unlikely to happen as the present government, which includes many people who are military protégés and Musharraf loyalists, will not agree to reconstitute a special court for a new trial. This may extend the life of the Khan government and propel their rise in the political hierarchy but by empowering the military, Pakistan’s present government has immeasurably weakened the health of Pakistan’s democracy.