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The trial of Gen Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former army chief and its last military dicator, is likely to shape the future direction of his country. The outcome of his trial, for treason, could expedite the ongoing democratic political process, which began when an elected government handed over power to a new elected government for the first time in the country's history.
In the past, Pakistan's all-powerful army has repeatedly interrupted the political process. Each military coup has led to, on average, a decade of army rule. Each has set the country back decades in terms of political development.
The army wielded the real power behind the throne even when an elected government was at the helm. After the death of the previous military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq when Benazir Bhutto was elected as Pakistan's first woman prime minister – the first in the Muslim world – she was allowed to take oath only after she agreed to keep away from three critical portfolios: foreign affairs, defence and the economy.
These policies in Pakistan, crafted by the miltiary, have led to the current situation where 'jihadis' (so-called holy warriors) run amok, claiming over 50,000 civilian and over 10,000 military lives over the past decade.
Musharraf contributed to this situation after ousting the elected government. He grabbed power in a coup of 1999, a bloodless one, like the earlier ones in Pakistan. He ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds – allowing the homegrown 'jihadis' to continue operating (useful to needle India in the disputed region of Kashmir), while turning his back on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
He held sway initially as a self-styled 'chief executive', and then as President. After the elections of 2008, threatened with impeachment, he became Pakistan's first President (although not a legitimately elected one) to actually resign, rather than be killed or forcibly removed from office.
Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister whom Musharraf had overthrown and exiled, was re-elected last year. His government slapped treason charges on the retired four-star general for his 2007 decision to detain senior judges (including the chief justice of the Supreme Court), suspend the Constitution, and impose emergency rule. The charges carry a sentence of life imprisonment or death. That is something the army will never countenance.
There are other actions by Musharraf that merit being tried for treason, like his coup and abrogation of the Constitution in 1999, and earlier, the "war-like situation" he initiated across the Line of Control dividing the disputed territory of Kashmir. Regulars from the Pakistan army along with 'non-state actors' took over positions in Kargil on the Indian side of Kashmir. Pakistan initially vociferously denied its army was involved, but after it was all over, even decorated some of the officers involved.
Sharif, then Prime Minister, insists he was not informed about that misadventure until after it had begun. The Kargil war proved costly in terms of human life, nearly led to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and set relations that had only just begun to thaw back into a cold freeze.
Now Pakistan has, for the first time, charged and tried a former army chief. The situation has had its histrionic moments, gleefully and repeatedly shown live on the country's dozens of TV channels.
The latest was the apparent heart problem that Musharraf suffered on his way to a court hearing on 1 January 2014. Rushed to Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) where he is still admitted, he has sought exemption from further court appearances.
Not particularly surprising. Musharraf – a 70-year-old former commando who is very fit for his age - had earlier failed to appear at previous court proceedings on one pretext or another. Security forces twice announced the discovery of explosives near his residence, each discovery coming a day before court hearings. His lawyers justified his absence from court proceedings due to these security threats, but many are sceptical.
Shortly before the general elections of 11 May 2013, Musharraf returned to Pakistan after five years of self-exile, most of them spent in London and Dubai. Before landing, he had obtained pre-arrest bail for the cases pending against him, to prevent his arrest on arrival. A few hundred supporters turned up to greet him - clearly not the euphoric masses he'd expected.
His hopes of a political entry were stymied when the courts disqualified him from contesting the polls. He is unlikely to have made any great impact had he been allowed to contest. Having thousands of Facebook followers does not necessarily translate into votes on the ground, a sad reality that the former army strongman may finally have come to grips with.
At a hearing in April, before the elections, as a court pronounced the cancellation of his bail, Musharraf left the courtroom before the police could move to arrest him. Surrounded by private armed guards, he was filmed speeding away in his black bulletproof four-wheeler.
After he turned himself in later, he was placed under house arrest at his luxurious farmhouse outside Islamabad. Last November, the courts finally granted him bail in all the cases against him but continued to bar him from leaving the country.
Now, the general speculation is that Musharraf will be allowed to travel abroad on 'medical grounds'. His lawyers have produced a letter from Dr. Arjumand Hashmi, the Pakistani-American Director of Interventional Cardiology at the Regional Medical Center in Paris, Texas, asking that Musharraf be transferred there.
However, other US-based Pakistani doctors have dismissed this development. "There is nothing, prima facie, in General Pervez Musharraf's medical report to suggest that the highly capable doctors at the AFIC cannot handle his rather straightforward and uncomplicated condition," say two reputed Pakistani-American doctors, Mohammad Taqi and Arshad Rehan, the later a Fellow of the American College of Cardiologists.
For the Sharif government, the trial of Musharraf is a populist move. However, even Musharraf's opponents point to the legal lacunae in the clearly politically motivated proceedings. Many see the process as a diversion to distract from the government's incompetence in dealing with various issues, including ongoing terror attacks.
The most likely and realistic outcome of this game is an imminent behind-the-scenes face-saving agreement in which Musharraf is allowed to proceed abroad for medical treatment.
Would this be so bad?
After all, what this Pakistan desperately needs, as the late Benazir Bhutto stressed, is democracy, tolerance, and reconciliation.
By putting Musharraf on trial, the Sharif government has sent a strong signal against military adventurism. By letting him go, it will show itself as pragmatic, as well as not vindictive.
The army remains a force to be reckoned with and to upset the apple cart may serve no purpose at this point. In the current war on terrorism, it is imperative that Pakistan's security and political establishments close ranks and band together on the same page.
Beena Sarwar is a US-based Pakistani journalist, artist and documentary filmmaker, with a key focus on human rights as well as peace, gender and media issues.