The verdict against Pervez Musharraf serves a warning for nations
A few days after ousting the government of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through a coup in July 1977, General Zia-ul Haq called on the deposed leader.
His ingratiating smile spread all over his face, Pakistan’s newest military ruler told Bhutto -- who had appointed him chief of staff in 1976 over six other generals -- that the coup was a temporary measure and Bhutto would soon be out and into a new election campaign.
Bhutto, famous for his arrogance and rudeness, was unimpressed.
He reminded Zia of the provision in Pakistan’s constitution stipulating the death sentence for individuals guilty of removing a legally and constitutionally established government by force. Zia said not a word in response and went on smiling.
But it was at that point where he probably decided that he could not let his erstwhile benefactor go free, for if he did, Bhutto would, upon returning to power, ensure that Zia went to the gallows.
And so the Pakistan army, led by Zia in his capacity as chief martial law administrator and chief of staff, contrived every means of keeping Bhutto in prison. At a particular point, Zia publicly proclaimed: “I will hang the bastard.”
And Bhutto, a mere shadow of his former ebullient and dynamic self, the first elected leader in Pakistan’s tortuous history, was led to the gallows in April 1979.
General Zia ruled the country in all his ferocity till the C-130 aircraft carrying him and a whole bunch of others, including the American ambassador, plunged from the sky to the ground in Bahawalpur in August 1988. No one survived.
During his years in power, or posthumously, no measures were taken to try Zia for his unconstitutional seizure of power on July 5, 1977. Neither were legal proceedings launched into the controversial manner where Bhutto was executed in under two years following the coup.
But now that a special court in Pakistan has handed down a sentence of death on General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s fourth military ruler, one is tempted to ask if such judgments could not have come earlier in Pakistan’s history and so prevented the state from being commandeered by its soldiers at regular intervals.
Of course, Musharraf has not been convicted for the coup of October 1999 but for his declaration of emergency in November 2007. Of course, when soldiers seize a state, they make it impossible -- through clamping martial law and a slew of military regulations -- for the courts to operate without inhibitions.
But such realities do not obscure the fact that once such dictators fall from power or give themselves civilian clothes or proceed into quiet retirement, the usual practice for politicians and judicial experts has been to let them go scot-free.
The verdict against General Musharraf should now give people in Pakistan -- and in every country where constitutionally established political order has often been disrupted to regard it as a milestone -- a reason to ask why similar legal procedures were not followed in the past.
The truth, in our part of the world (and we include Bangladesh here), is that the sordid tradition of coups set by the Pakistan army in October 1958 has vitiated politics, to a point where democracy has remained in a stunted, or call it “bonsai,” state.
It would have made sense for legal proceedings to be drawn up against Major General Iskandar Mirza and Field Marshal Ayub Khan once the latter withdrew martial law in 1962 and gave Pakistan his own constitution.
Had such a process been inaugurated, perhaps the periods of military rule we have seen undermine politics in Pakistan -- and later in Bangladesh -- would not come to pass.
Again, General Yahya Khan could have been brought to trial after his fall from power in December 1971 on the grave charge of seizing power in March 1969 (which prevented Abdul Jabbar Khan, the speaker of the national assembly, from succeeding Ayub Khan). An additional charge against Yahya Khan could have been one of repudiating the results of the general elections of December 1970, and waging war against the people of Pakistan’s majority province, soon to be Bangladesh.
General Zia-ul Haq was killed in the Bahawalpur air crash, but even so, initiatives should have been taken by later civilian governments and by the judiciary to try him in posthumous fashion and convict him over his coup of July 1977 under the provisions of Pakistan’s constitution as it was adopted in 1973.
Here in Bangladesh, there are many in the country who would like nothing better than a posthumous, and justified, trial of Khondokar Moshtaq and his cohorts over their role in the violent removal of the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975.
Indeed, in the interest of justice and democracy, it is an absolute necessity to bring closure to Bangladesh’s periods of darkness by judicially condemning Moshtaq’s act of treason as well as General Ziaur Rahman’s seizure of power in November 1975 and so undermining constitutional politics by their violent interventions in governance.
In like manner, it is today an imperative to draw up proceedings against the recently deceased General Hussein Muhammad Ershad on the criminal charge of removing an elected government by extra-judicial force in March 1982.
The verdict against Pervez Musharraf opens a door.
It is a warning that people of the likes of those who have regularly seized the state through force of arms in Bangladesh and Pakistan (as also in Chile, Egypt and elsewhere) must at some point be prosecuted and convicted, be they dead or alive, in order for the integrity of nations and the dignity of men and women to be preserved and held high.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.