The arrest of Pervez Musharraf, the first of a former general by a civilian government, and the angry protests against him by lawyers take Pakistan through an unprecedented political experience. By ANITA JOSHUA in Islamabad

THE trial of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf could well turn into a trial for the judiciary as lawyers, in particular, bay for his blood. While the political class—including Nawaz Sharif, whose government the general overthrew in a coup in 1999—has maintained a cultivated indifference towards him since his return from self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, the legal fraternity has been protesting and filing cases against him in various courts.

No doubt, the television footage of a former Army chief being brought into a dingy district courtroom of Islamabad was a sight to behold for a nation that tries not to offend men in battle fatigues, even if they are just junior officers. Never before has a former Army chief been paraded thus in Pakistan, which has been ruled directly by the military for half its existence and has lived in awe and fear of the institution during civilian rule.

His incarceration—even if it is at his plush farmhouse on the outskirts of the federal capital—has brought into sharp focus once again the mystery about his return. That he would run into trouble with the law was no secret as arrest warrants had been awaiting him for more than four years and the only way he walked free for the first three weeks after his return was by receiving bail. That neither he nor his party, the two-and-a-half-year-old All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), had a prayer at the hustings was also a no-brainer.

Then, why did he return since, from all indications, the Saudis and the Pakistani establishment had advised him against such a move. If all that has been written about his return in the mainstream media is any indication, nobody has actually been able to get their head around his decision. There is so much that just does not add up that even the conspiracy theorists have failed to come up with a sellable hypothesis.

Such being the case, the best explanation that people have before them is that he probably took his Facebook following—800,000 likes on his page—way too seriously. The lawyer Babar Sattar went back to Musharraf’s book In the Line of Fire for an explanation. “Musharraf comes across as a conceited, vain and shallow man. His behaviour in public life, especially in the face of adversity, provides further corroboration. One has never heard him admit a mistake or apologise for a wrong…. The sinful influence of absolute power together with intoxicating sycophancy pushed him into fantasyland in his later years from where he never returned,” Sattar wrote in The News.

His hour of return itself was a crash course in reality check. There were no multitudes thronging the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi to welcome him and he was kept waiting inside for a couple of hours for no apparent reason. And within a week, he had a shoe thrown at him on his very first day at court. Then, slowly but steadily, his election dream began turning sour. His nomination papers were rejected one after another—at Karachi, Islamabad and Kasur. Only the returning officer of Chitral, in the north-western parts of the country bordering Afghanistan, accepted his nomination papers.

That sliver of hope died mid-April when an appeal against his Chitral nomination was accepted by the election tribunal. By this time, election tribunals overseeing nominations elsewhere had turned down the APML’s appeals.

Two days later, Musharraf’s arrest was ordered, and within minutes the General (retd.) suffix gave way to bhagorra (fugitive/absconder). And the relish with which some called him bhagorra was all too evident as criticism mounted over the manner in which the state machinery allowed him to make good his escape.

According to some of those who were in the courtroom when Musharraf’s bail was cancelled, the police did move to arrest him. They were elbowed out by the commandos of the Pakistan Rangers who form the bulk of his inner security detail. Also, the gates of the court premises were kept wide open for the motorcade to get away, and Musharraf reached his farmhouse with full escort. Would any civilian President or Prime Minister—forget a former one —have been able to do this, was the refrain of the day.

In fact, many Pakistan People’s Party-inclined opinion-makers heaved a sigh of relief over the fact that a neutral caretaker set-up was in charge. “Imagine if this escape had happened under a PPP government; that would have become the story of the day,” was a common observation in a reflection of the bad press the party invariably gets.

And, when his farmhouse was turned into a sub-jail to keep him under house arrest since there are threats to his life—from the Taliban and Baloch insurgents—the kid-glove treatment afforded to a military man as opposed to a civilian came into sharp relief. Musharraf is the first military dictator to be jailed, while civilian Presidents and Prime Ministers have been arrested by the military regime before. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his daughter Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have all been imprisoned and spent time in jail.

The only other former Army chief to be imprisoned was Tikka Khan, who has gone down in history as the “Butcher of Bengal” for cracking down on the liberation movement of East Pakistan. After his tenure as the Army chief ended in 1976, he was appointed Defence Minister in the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Cabinet. He was arrested in Lahore in March 1978 for instigating riots against General Zia-ul-Haq’s decision to execute Bhutto, but that arrest was made under military rule, not a civilian dispensation. So, Musharraf’s arrest is, indeed, a first civilian arrest of a military dictator in Pakistan.

Though there are whispers about the possibility of Musharraf being whisked out of the country—possibly on health grounds—as the treason case against him for subverting the Constitution will prise open the role of the military and other politicians in the coup, for now the general’s fate is in the hands of the judiciary, which had once proved to be his nemesis. The presiding deity of the judicial hierarchy is still Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, whose removal as the Chief Justice in November 2007 set off a chain of events that led to the downfall of Musharraf.

Which is why Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the leading lights of the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of Justice Chaudhry and 59 other superior judges, has called this a “test case” for the judiciary. Seeing the lawyers’ behaviour after tasting first blood with Musharraf’s arrest, opinion-makers have begun cautioning against an unbridled quest to avenge all the sins committed by Pakistan’s last coup-maker, first as the Chief of the Army Staff and then as dictator.

“Musharraf’s trial is not about settling scores. It is about upholding the due process of the law. It is about defending the sanctity and inviolability of our Constitution. It is about establishing that authority flows from the letter of the law and not the barrel of the gun. And it is about demonstrating that the law of this land applies equally to civilians and khakis,” wrote Sattar.

Can of worms

But there is also the apprehension that reopening the festering wounds inflicted by Musharraf on the body politic would be akin to opening a can of worms. The discussion in the Senate reflected the divide, with some Senators wanting revenge and others advocating caution. It was pointed out that many a politician did validate his actions by supporting him at his prime.

Add to this the fear that too much of witch-hunt would shift the blame on to the current Chief of the Army Staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was chosen by Musharraf for the top job and was the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence before that.

Arguing that to hold Musharraf alone guilty would simply perpetuate the myth that a military coup and the subversion of democracy is the “sin” of an individual and not a collective act, the Dawn newspaper said that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. “It needs to be realised that Gen. Musharraf’s departure in 2008 and his arrest at present are possible because the door to military coups has been shut than to presume that his trial alone will prevent further coups. Sometimes justice is best served by letting history be, rather than forcibly dragging it into the present. Gen. Musharraf, too, is part of Pakistan’s past and he should be left there.”