On Monday, a high court in Pakistan reversed a guilty verdict and death sentence for former leader Pervez Musharraf on charges of treason, ruling the court’s formation unconstitutional. This special court sentenced Musharraf, who is currently seeking medical treatment in Dubai, to death in December on charges of treason resulting from his declaration of a state of emergency in 2007. The military, of whom Musharraf was the leader while president, protested the ruling. Musharraf challenged the verdict as it came from a court formed for the singular purpose of trying him for treason, a charge with which the Pakistani high court agreed.
Pakistan’s Attorney General Ishtiaq A. Khan, representing the government, told Reuters that the court “has declared everything from the initiation of the complaint and its conclusion unconstitutional.” Musharraf’s lawyer, Azhar Siddique, also announced the decision, saying that “Lahore High Court has nullified the decision about Pervez Musharraf.” Reema Omer, a legal adviser to human-rights organization International Commission of Jurists based in Pakistan, told The Wall Street Journal that the reversal “shows that even in a case as straightforward as this, convicting a former chief of army staff for subversions of the constitution remains a challenge.” In that same article, Saeed Shah and Waqar Gillani explained that Musharraf is in self-imposed exile in Dubai, so “it was unlikely he would ever come home to be punished” but “the ruling had symbolic resonance for many.”
There are two distinct facets of this development worth considering: the validity of the case against Musharraf and the constitutionality of the sentencing court. Speaking to the former, Musharraf suspended the constitution and imposed a state of emergency as a result of growing dissent following an attempt to remove a Supreme Court judge and a sham election in the months before he suspended the constitution. Musharraf ruled because of a military coup and used the military to enforce his rule; all of these factors are antithetical to a democratic society. The charges against Musharraf certainly hold validity, whether or not one agrees with the imposition of the death penalty. Punishing leaders that violate the constitution is crucial, and it is promising that Pakistan tried to do so. Unfortunately, forming a court for the sole purpose of convicting someone does not appear democratic, either, and in the end, only hurts their cause. It is impossible to prosecute one for violating the constitution in a way that also does so.
In November 2007, Musharraf imposed a state of emergency on Pakistan that lasted through February 2008, suspending the constitution. This decision arose as a result of growing opposition to his leadership, an opposition that grew after his attempt to remove Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March 2007, an effort ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In October 2007, Musharraf also held an indirect presidential election, “in which the Pakistani legislature handed Musharraf an overwhelming victory in a contest boycotted by opposition lawmakers,” according to Newsweek. In the initial decision, the court found Musharraf guilty of violating Article 6 of the constitution, which states that anyone who suspends the constitution through forceful means is guilty of high treason, as explained by The Washington Post. Musharraf first came to power through a 1999 coup, serving as the leader of Pakistan until he stepped down in 2008 after a poor showing by his party in elections and mounting pressure. He left the country for Dubai in 2016, three years after the case against him formally began. The most contentious issue of Musharraf’s rule was his struggles against the judiciary to retain his position as head of the military and president simultaneously. “December’s verdict was the first time that a leader behind a coup had been convicted in Pakistan, where the country’s democratic institutions have struggled to assert control over the army,” according to The Wall Street Journal. As a result, the initial decision was especially remarkable because the “judiciary has usually backed Pakistan’s military establishment through the country’s 73-year history.”
It is a concerning development that the military exercised enough power over the judiciary to exact their will in the reversal of this decision. While it certainly is promising that the Pakistanis attempted to bring justice through the judiciary, they must be strictly constitutional in doing so. These developments do not create hope for the rule of law in Pakistan. If the military has enough power to reverse judiciary decisions they disagree with, then their power is almost unlimited. If these events are any indication, the power in Pakistan does not belong to the people- it belongs to the military, and whoever manages to court them and subject them for their own gain. As the only Muslim nuclear power, this instability in the rule of law could have disastrous consequences not only in the region but internationally.