Thursday, August 22, 2013

The execution of Zulfikar Bhutto, the indictment of Musharraf and changing attitudes in Pakistan

The indictment on Tuesday of Pervez Musharraf is the first time in Pakistan that a former army chief has had charges brought against him.

The indictment comes as a great surprise in many ways. It is a sign of a new attitude from the civilian administration towards military men such as Musharraf who have been previously too powerful to take on.

The military is still a dominant force in Pakistani politics. Many commentators thought that Nawaz Sharif would be unwilling to risk alienating the current military commanders by prosecuting their former colleague. Even now, it is possible that the charges will remain symbolic rather than having any real effect. There is also the possibility of a return to exile for Musharraf, to avoid any concrete decision having to be made.  

But the pursuit of the trial by the government is a sign of changing attitudes.

This will most likely not end in a convenient exile. The number of other charges brought against Musharraf did not allow him to run for election as he had planned to. Clearly when he decided to return he did not comprehend the scale of the case that would be brought against him. The charge of treason has raised the stakes significantly - as a capital offence it carries a possible death sentence. It suggests that the government and the prosecutors really are going after this prosecution.

The recent Abbottabad Commission report into the death of Osama bin Laden published findings which condemned Pakistan as ‘’a failing state’’. Widespread corruption, apathy and incompetence are all highlighted in the report. The roles of the military and particularly the ISI are criticized in the report, with both acting well beyond their remit in civilian affairs.

This pitiable state of the government’s administration is due to long-term military rule. Because of this history, the country does not possess the developed, vibrant, democratic institutions which are needed for an effective democratic government.

The zeal of the pursuit of Musharraf is a step towards setting in place these democratic institutions and establishing an attitude of the culpability of military strongmen. It is a sign of this civilian government showing the military they are not untouchable.

Musharraf’s lawyers have claimed that the indictment amounts to selective justice and ignores others complicit in his crimes. They do so in the knowledge that many of those who would have to be charged alongside him are currently serving in the government and military and it would be virtually impossible to bring charges against them all. The prosecution of Musharraf then could be a warning to those others; that things in Pakistan are changing; and that even if it is failing, the civilian government has not failed yet.

The execution of Bhenazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar, offers interesting comparisons to the current situation with Musharraf. The former leader was charged with murdering political opponents and then summarily executed by the military regime. This came after a prolonged and dubiously handled appeal process.

The civilian administrator being punished unjustly by the succeeding military government has now become the military leader being prosecuted by the succeeding civilian government.

This is not to say that Musharraf is innocent in the same way as Zulfikar (probably) was. Musharraf should be brought to justice for all the crimes committed during his rule. Nor is it to say that the pursuit of Musharraf’s trial by the current government is as clearly legally dubious and un-transparent as the military regime’s handling of the Bhutto trial and execution was. But make of the comparison what you will. The two cases are worth considering next to each other.

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