This week in Pakistan, the word ‘traitor’ was back. In two entirely different contexts. If you spoke about the horrific 2014 terror attack on Peshawar Army Public School and the lingering injustice, you could risk being called a traitor. On the other hand, a special court in Islamabad charged former President Pervez Musharraf with the traitor tag and awarded him death penalty.
No one in Pakistan wants to talk about the past horrors of ‘16 December’. It is a day when everything is swept under the carpet. It is a day to not look at the skeletons in your closet. Since the tragedy of the Peshawar school attack in 2014, 16 December has become a day to acknowledge the ‘sacrifice’ of our children who were killed in cold blood – a sacrifice that no one expects from a six-year-old on the first day of her school. It is more about the valour of children and less about the why and how of the policies that led to the attack; it’s definitely not about bringing closure for the parents who await justice. You can grieve and mourn and commemorate, but you can’t ask questions about how the Peshawar school attack was a security lapse and/or about the judicial inquiry.
Hinting that nations learn from their past to better their future, Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa this week talked about the lessons to be learnt from the fall of Dhaka and the Peshawar school massacre. He mentioned that “if the state starts asserting itself too much, then people break away from the social contract” that binds them with the state.
“When the state starts ignoring the fundamental rights of its citizens, that contract is broken. This is what happened when Bangladesh came into being,” he said.
But questions of rights and justice are just those that remain buried in school textbooks in Pakistan. Talking about real issues suddenly makes you less of a Pakistani and more of a traitor.
So, it was quite an irony that it came as a shock to those who distribute certificates of ghaddari left, right and centre, when one of their own was certified a ‘traitor’ by the Islamabad court. Thus, making 17 December a day of judgement if not a day to reflect.
Former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf was handed death penalty for unlawfully imposing Emergency and thus subverting Pakistan’s Constitution in 2007, following a prolonged tussle with then-Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The high treason case against Musharraf was initiated by the Nawaz Sharif government in 2013. However, Musharraf left Pakistan in March 2016 on medical grounds and was declared an absconder the same year.
Pakistan Army’s pain
The Pakistan Armed Forces was pained and anguished by the Islamabad court’s verdict awarding death sentence to Musharraf. The judge heading the three-member bench, Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth, has a history of irking Pakistani officials. In October 2019, he had ordered to turn internment centres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa into sub-jails and asked for the list of people kept in those centres.
The Pakistan Army, not used to seeing its judiciary take such hard stands, expressed its disappointment over Gen Musharraf’s sentencing, saying that a man who had served the country for 40-odd years and fought two wars “can surely never be a traitor”. Musharraf pushed Pakistan to fight the 1999 Kargil War with India and violated the Constitution twice but the Pakistan Army doesn’t consider these as serious blunders.
But yes, the Army’s expectation that “justice” would be “dispensed” in line with the Constitution to a man who once said that “Constitution is a piece of paper to be thrown in the dustbin” couldn’t add more insult to injury to the people of Pakistan.
To mention that Musharraf held posts of “Army chief and chairman joint chief of staff committee” doesn’t absolve him of high treason. If rank was the criterion here, then why did the Pakistan Army send a Brigadier to the gallows and a top General to prison for treachery? Applying the same Musharraf logic, weren’t their posts more important than the crimes they committed?
When sitting prime ministers like Nawaz Sharif and Yousaf Raza Gillani were handed sentences, the “pain” and “anguish” didn’t matter because only when a “holy cow” is convicted will the delusions of the national discourse be dismantled. For a society obsessed with the idea of accountability, why does it not feel comfortable when those in uniform are held accountable? Or is accountability only for the civilians?
The thekedars of accountability led by Prime Minister Imran Khan are now up in arms against the court verdict in Musharraf’s case, calling it “unfair”. Khan had publicly called out Musharraf’s acts of 3 November 2007 as high treason and had promised to hold him accountable upon coming to power.
An unsettling possibility
In the last two months, the Imran Khan government has only tried to stall the case – from dismissing the prosecution team to seeking postponement of the verdict. This U-turn will be hard to forget. Musharraf’s supporters in PM Khan’s cabinet, such as Interior Minister Ijaz Shah and Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry, have been vocal about wanting the verdict to be overturned. So, the possibility of Musharraf being hanged is negligible under this hybrid government.
The ruling is unprecedented because no one in Pakistan ever saw this coming. And its symbolism is important because it sends a message to future military adventurists that there will be consequences if they think of a military coup.
The verdict is also like the light at the end of the tunnel for politicians, intellectuals, journalists and human rights defenders who keep raising their voices against injustice and for civilian supremacy.
But the fact remains that in Pakistan, only a Zulfikar Ali Bhutto could be hanged and not a Musharraf.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.