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The General Pakistan Can't Punish

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Speculations are rife that Pakistan's former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf will flee the country based on a covert deal between the country's civil and military leadership and the usual mediator, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis exercise remarkable influence on Pakistan's domestic politics. For religious reasons, Pakistanis, who view Saudi Arabia as the 'holy land', cannot say "no" to the oil-rich kingdom. On their part, the Saudis substantially finance Sunni Islamic schools across Pakistan in their proxy battle against the Shia-majority Iran.

Musharraf is currently in deep trouble. If the courts convict him of sedition because of a state of emergency he had imposed in 2007, the former military strongman man could face death sentence. Pakistan has never sentenced a former army chief to gallows although the army has staged at least three coups since the first one in 1958 by General Ayub Khan.

The Saudis had brokered a similar deal in 2000 to rescue the then deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (who came back in power in 2013) from the custody of the Musharraf regime. Sharif had been convicted by a military court to life sentence but he was released through the intervention of the Saudis who subsequently hosted him for seven years.

Times have totally changed. Now, it seems to be Prime Minister Sharif's turn to return the favor. While he is not directly indebted to Musharraf for any favors, Sharif will find it almost impossible to turn down a Saudi request to give Musharraf a safe exit. Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, is visiting Islamabad on January 6 to, according to the widespread conjecture in the Pakistani media, finalize the deal.

Pakistan's political history is full of dramas and clandestine deals but Musharraf's case involves more dramas than what is needed to understand why he is unlikely to face justice. The issue has been over-dramatized to such an extent that even ordinary Pakistanis are convinced that the powerful army is moving from pillar to post to protect its former chief from public humiliation and, above all, conviction.

On January 2, Musharraf was supposed to appear before a court in Islamabad as a part of the ongoing trial against him. With no hitherto history of heart problems, Musharraf complained of heart pain and was soon taken to a military hospital. The admission in the hospital provided Musharraf the third opportunity to skip appearance before the court. He had previously cited personal security concerns as another pretext for not showing up before the judges.

Musharraf may also request treatment abroad in an attempt to run away from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Musharraf, with the apparent support of the Pakistan military, has been provided numerous opportunities in the recent weeks to generate public and military's institutional support for him through arranged television interviews. People undergoing legal trial do not normally have access or permission to speak to the media. For Musharraf, it has been altogether a V.I.P.experience. One of Musharraf's own top admirers,Mubasher Lucman, for instance, interviewed the former coup-maker on a widely watched private news channel. The interviewer, rather than the interviewee, kept on reminding the audience how great a leader Musharraf had been during his term and how much the Pakistanis missed him.

Right-center leaning Prime Minister Sharif is under pressure from the main opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party, religious groups, the civil society and sections of the media to put Musharraf on trial for charges other than the 2007 state of emergency.

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L-Nawaz) won so many seats in the general elections of May 2013 that it can now run Pakistan for the next five years without the fear of losing majority in the parliament. Sharif's thumping mandate still does not provide him ample confidence to move against a former military chief for two main reasons.

First, punishing Musharraf will plunge Sharif in the guilt trap of taking revenge against a man who had toppled his government and imprisoned him. Some will see it as personal vendetta. Settling personal scores may not be the intention but Sharif is not in an ideal situation to avoid such accusations.

Second, executing Musharraf will certainly provoke the army and pit it once again against the relatively weak democratic government. People within Sharif's inner circles are not very sympathetic to Musharraf. Yet, they understand the heavy cost of confronting with the military only months after coming into power.

Convicting Musharraf will establish the supremacy of democratic rule in Pakistan and set a new precedence of applying the law of the land to everyone irrespective of their past affiliations. It does not seem easy to punish Musharraf. This is going to be the biggest gamble for the Sharif government and democracy in Pakistan. If Musharraf manages to flee the country without facing the courts, it will be a setback for the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan. Musharraf's exit will continue to depict Sharif as subservient to the army and its political interests.

This article was originally published in The Diplomat