In a move unprecedented in Pakistan's 62-year-old history, the Supreme Court summoned former president Pervez Musharraf to explain his November 2007 decision to suspend the constitution, impose emergency rule in the country and fire all the top judges. The notice requires Musharraf to either appear in person or through counsel on July 29, 2009.
The development has historic significance in a country where Martial Law has been imposed four times, each one accompanied by a nod from a submissive Supreme Court. The court's order could also possibly be the first step towards a one-of-a-kind trial against a former military ruler.
Musharraf seized power in a 1999 military coup and served as an indispensable ally to the Bush administration following the Sept 11 attacks. Despite facing immense criticism at home for his role in the War on Terror, news of the court order stirred little U.S. reaction. U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, when questioned by the media during his visit to Pakistan, showed indifference towards the former U.S. ally.
The News, a widely-read national newspaper reported:
"Richard Holbrooke said Wednesday President Pervez Musharraf is now history and that the US will not come to defend him. Holbrooke termed Pervez Musharraf's case as Pakistan's internal issue and added that the US respects Pakistan's judiciary and free press."
According to immediate reports by national newspapers, the ex-president's staff refused to accept the notice delivered to them at his farmhouse close to the capital city, Islamabad, on Wednesday. Faced with security threats, Musharraf currently resides in London. He has already contacted lawyers for consultation, local newspapers reported.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who presided over the bench that issued the order, was the central figure in a judicial impasse that hit Pakistan in early 2007 when Musharraf dismissed him on a host of charges. The move was vehemently rejected by the lawyer community, which immediately launched countrywide protests, eventually enabling Chaudhry's reinstatement.
Musharraf was reelected in October 2007, but he anticipated an invalidation of his presidency by a Supreme Court, whose stance of barring a uniformed official from public office was becoming quite apparent. On Nov 3, 2007, using his power as an army chief, Musharraf suspended the constitution, imposed emergency and sent 60 judges home. His popularity plummeted. Soon, he lifted the emergency and quit as army chief. The February 2008 parliamentary elections further weakened his presidency. He resigned in August 2008.
Choudhary was reinstated a second time but only after extreme pressure on the current PPP government. It was then considered only a matter of time till some petition would be initiated against Musharraf for his Nov 3rd actions.
Public sentiment on the court order was revealed by phone calls to national television shows that mostly welcomed it and newspaper editorials that hailed it as an encouraging step towards a more democratic society.
The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper, wrote in its editorial:
"For all his [Musharraf] bravado that Pakistan was his permanent home, there is little likelihood that he would return to appear himself. A guilty verdict on subverting the Constitution would land him in serious trouble. The people who have been repeatedly subjected by the usurpers of power to unconstitutional rule in the country must have experienced great relief at the Chief Justice's observation, "enough is enough", reflecting the judiciary's resolve not to allow any unconstitutional measures to be taken in the future."
Still, considering Musharraf's time in power was marked by polarized camps of staunch loyalists defending him in the name of national security on the one hand and angry lawyers accusing him of violating the constitution on the other, news of the summons also provoked similar extreme reactions from ordinary citizens.
"Even if Musharraf simply has to answer to a summons in court, it sends out the crucial message that a position in the army does not acquit you of your legal accountability," said Waqar Tariq, a 22-year-old law student. "There is a joke among political pundits that usually states have an army, but in Pakistan the army has a state. Musharraf appearing in court could potentially be the first step for proving them wrong."
Eliya Khurshid, a 30-year-old housewife, championed Musharraf as the best thing to have happened to Pakistan. "He defended Pakistan at a time when the whole world was against our country. Anything he might have done is mitigated by his leadership at our moments of crisis. Nobody, and I do believe nobody, could have done a better job."
Another Musharraf supporter, 25-year-old Faiza Ghaffar Khan, expressed general frustration towards corrupt civilian leadership and said she was anticipating what the Supreme Court would conclude after listening to Musharraf's defense.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General of Pakistan, Sardar Latif Khosa said on Wednesday, according to The South Asian News Agency, "We are not in a position to defend Pervez Musharraf's illegal acts. As the Chief of the Army Staff, General (r) Pervez Musharraf had no right to impose emergency in the country."
Legal experts told Daily Times, another Pakistani newspaper, that it was not mandatory for the former president to appear before court, but it would do him good to respond appropriately by defending himself in person.
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