Relief for Musharraf, gaffe by Nawaz, and Iran’s outreach to India
It had been suggested in EFSAS' Commentary of 27-12-2019 that in the aftermath of the brave judicial decision of a special court in Pakistan to sentence former dictator Pervez Musharraf to death for treason, the judiciary’s response to the inevitable backlash by the Pakistani military establishment would determine how the power struggles in the country would play out. The wait for an answer was neither long nor exacting. As concluded in the aforementioned commentary, the historical position and strength of the military establishment meant that it would emerge victorious.
The Imran Khan government, widely perceived in Pakistan as the establishment’s puppet, could claim some credit for physically pursuing and getting Musharraf’s death sentence controversially annulled at breakneck speed. That it did so was not surprising. Musharraf had boasted at a press conference in Dubai in February 2019 that “Half of the present ministers are mine. The law minister and the attorney general were my lawyers”. The usage of possessive pronouns by Musharraf was telling. While these long ties and the accompanying feudalistic loyalties did play a part, the overwhelming pressure that got the government to act with the urgency and forcefulness on the issue that it displayed was the unequivocal expectation of the military establishment that the government would act exactly in the way that it eventually did. Or else there were several other pliable and eager leaders and their parties waiting in the wings.
Musharraf, who is currently based in Dubai, had filed an application in the Lahore High Court (LHC) urging it to prevent the special court from sentencing him in absentia. In the petition, the former dictator had challenged the formation of the special court and pointed to legal flaws committed in the procedure. A bench of the LHC headed by Justice Syed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi and including Justice Mohammad Ameer Bhatti and Justice Mohammad Masood Jahangir on 13 January declared all actions taken by the previous Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) government against Musharraf, including the filing of a complaint on the high treason charge and the formation of a special court as well as its proceedings, unconstitutional. The bench also ruled against the retrospective effect given to an amendment in Article 6 of the country’s Constitution, which deals with high treason, to try Musharraf for an infraction that was not an offence on the date on which it was carried out.
The bench, therefore, reversed the death penalty handed down to Musharraf by a special court that had been formed on the directions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The legality and propriety of the LHC, a court subordinate to the Supreme Court, striking down not only the Musharraf verdict of the Supreme Court-constituted special court, but also terming the very setting up of the special court unconstitutional, is peculiar. Observers have argued that the only forum that could have legally overturned the special court verdict was the Supreme Court, before which Musharraf has not yet bothered to even file an appeal. Some have also opined that the development has made a mockery of the Pakistani legal system and further eroded the already tenuous status of the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan. The speed at which the Musharraf case was rushed through the LHC has raised serious questions about how the military establishment was able to use and misuse the law at will, all the while itself remaining well above the very same law. In the country’s otherwise dysfunctional legal system, the common man often has to wait a lifetime to get a decision on even routine, mundane matters out of the courts.
The main opposition parties, PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), unsurprisingly, expressed surprise and suspicion over the LHC judgment. PPP lawmaker Dr. Nafisa Shah described the LHC verdict as baffling, adding that “Today is an unfortunate day for the rule of law”. She stressed that only the Supreme Court had the authority to review the special court verdict. She also questioned the speed with which the LHC had arrived at its decision by drawing attention to the fact that a case concerning the judicial murder of PPP founder and former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been awaiting hearing for the last eight years, whereas an appeal against the conviction of a military dictator had been decided within days. PML-N Senator Mushahidullah Khan also expressed reservations over the verdict, especially when the whole world had seen “dictator General Musharraf” abrogating the Constitution. Describing the list of Musharraf’s “crimes” as being very long, he said that it was strange that there were people who still believed that Musharraf should not be convicted.
The protestations of the political parties did not carry much weight, though, as their top leaders, whether out of apathy, fear, or a desire not to provoke the establishment, refrained from voicing their opinion on the LHC judgment. It also did not help their cause, or their image, that a photograph of a supposedly ailing PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif enjoying a meal in a restaurant in London with his brother Shahbaz Sharif, son Hasan Nawaz, nephew Salman Shahbaz and former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, came to light this week. Nawaz, who had been lodged in a Pakistani prison serving a sentence for corruption and had late last year been granted bail, had been allowed to travel to the United Kingdom (UK) last month specifically to receive better medical treatment there. His jaunt to a restaurant instead was perceived in Pakistan as an indicator of his having lied about the claimed poor state of his health in order to escape further imprisonment.
PM Imran Khan, who had been unconvinced of Nawaz Sharif adverse health status even at the time of the latter’s departure last month, had said then that “this man could die any minute if he did not go abroad for treatment. But he suddenly recovered and looked perfectly fine as he got a glimpse of the London-bound air ambulance”. After the photograph was published, Imran Khan described the Sharif family as “frauds”.
Federal Science Minister Fawad Chaudhry uploaded the photograph on his Twitter account and commented, “In London’s intensive care unit, the treatment against plundering is underway and all patients present are feeling better”. The Health Minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Dr. Yasmeen Rashid, added, “On the one hand, you say he is in a very critical condition... then tell us, is it a part of it that you are socializing? Is it a part of the treatment?” Revealing that the PML-N was seeking permission for Nawaz's daughter Maryam Nawaz, who is also out on bail, to travel to London to care for her father, Rashid sarcastically commented, “Where will she take care of him? At a restaurant? You take care of a person who is bedridden, which he is not, according to them, he was moving around”. Overall, the ill-considered visit to a restaurant by Nawaz Sharif has only served to show Pakistani politicians in an even dimmer light.
While these developments were unfolding in Pakistan, India held its annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi this week. Among the foreign heads of States and other dignitaries that participated, the most important one - in the current geo-political scenario - was Iran's Foreign Minister Javed Zarif. Having lost most of the sympathy that Iran had gained internationally over General Qassem Soleimani's assassination by the United States because of Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger aircraft, even if mistakenly, Zarif sought to gain the understanding and support of the Indian government during his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on the sidelines of the Raisina Dialogue. A statement from Modi’s office said that “The Foreign Minister shared his perspectives on the recent developments in the region. The Prime Minister mentioned India's strong interest in peace, security, and stability in the region. PM reiterated India's continued commitment to developing strong & friendly relations with Iran. He thanked Iranian leadership for the progress in the Chabahar project, including through designating it as Special Economic Zone”.
Zarif, on his part, expressed confidence that India could play a role in “de-escalating tensions in the Gulf region as New Delhi is an important player”. Zarif’s confidence was echoed by Ali Chegeni, the Iranian Ambassador to India, who said, “India usually plays a very good role in peace in the world. India belongs to this region. We welcome all initiatives from all countries, especially India as a good friend, to not allow escalation of tensions”.
The meetings and the warm words exchanged, convey an important message; Iran is inclined to - at this crucial point - maintain and cherish strategic and old friendships in the region.