Pakistan’s ex-military ruler may stand trial for treason

Pakistan’s prime minister has said the government plans to put the military ruler who ousted him in a coup more than a decade ago on trial for treason, setting up a possible clash with the country’s powerful army.

But the government stopped short of declaring officially that it was filing charges against Pervez Musharraf, saying it would first consult with other political parties.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif spoke in parliament yesterday as Pakistan’s supreme court held a hearing on a possible treason case against Mr Musharraf. The former military ruler can only be tried for treason if the federal government presses charges against him.

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Mr Sharif said the government agreed with the supreme court’s decision that Mr Musharraf had committed treason under Article 6 of the constitution when he declared a state of emergency in 2007 and suspended the constitution.

“The prime minister is under oath to protect, preserve and defend the constitution, and it is implicit in his oath that his government ensures that persons guilty of acts under Article 6 are brought to justice,” Mr Sharif said in parliament.

He was reading from a statement that was submitted to the supreme court by the country’s attorney general, Munir Malik. The statement did not mention the former General Musharraf’s ousting of Mr Sharif in a coup in 1999 when he was serving as army chief, perhaps because the move was retroactively approved by the supreme court and parliament at the time.

“Musharraf has to answer for all his deeds in court,” Mr Sharif said.

Mr Musharraf would be the first military ruler to be tried for treason in a country that has experienced three military coups in its nearly 66-year history.

The prime minister said the government would consult with other political parties on bringing Mr Musharraf to trial, leaving open the possibility that it could still choose to abandon the case if it faced opposition.

“The federal government will proceed in accordance with the law and also take political forces into confidence through a consultative process, so that the collective will and wisdom of the people of Pakistan is duly reflected in further process in this behalf,” Mr Sharif said.

Senior MPs from the two main opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said they supported the government’s plan to try Mr Musharraf for treason.

“If we are going to strengthen democracy in this country and establish democratic norms, the only way is to follow the constitution and abide by the law,” Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf MP Shah Mahmood Qureshi said.

Mr Musharraf, who is under house arrest in connection with a separate case, could face the death penalty or life in prison if he is convicted of treason.

But some analysts doubt the army, which is considered to be the country’s most powerful institution, would allow that to happen, and it could intervene to prevent it.

Mr Musharraf, who maintains his innocence, returned to Pakistan in March after years in self-imposed exile, with the hope of running in the national election last month. But he was disqualified because of his actions while in power and has spent most of his time battling legal cases. The government has barred him from leaving the country while the cases are in progress.

The caretaker government that ruled the country in the run-up to the election declined to press treason charges against Mr Musharraf, telling the supreme court the issue was outside its mandate.

Supreme court judges quizzed the attorney-general yesterday about the government’s plans to bring charges against Mr Musharraf. They ordered him to appear before them again on Thursday to provide an update.