Pakistan: the general is no longer untouchable | Editorial

One way or another, the charges brought against Pervez Musharraf amount to the same thing: putting him on trial

Compared with the announcement in June in which the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, declared his government's intention to press charges against Pervez Musharraf for treason, Tuesday's court indictment against the former military ruler for murder in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a sideshow. Few analysts believe there is hard evidence linking Mr Musharraf to Bhutto's murder, although a UN report concluded that he failed to make serious efforts to ensure her safety. The treason charges, if they materialise, are a different matter, as the legal case that he subverted the constitution when he imposed emergency rule in late 2007 is relatively easy to make.

Mr Musharraf already faces charges in four cases related to his period of rule. One way or another, it amounts to the same thing: putting a once untouchable general on trial. Pakistan's powerful military did not support his return from exile in London but they would also not want to see one of their own dragged through the courts. Much has changed in his absence. The chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, with whom Mr Musharraf feuded for most of his time in office, is about to retire. There has been an unprecedented outbreak of criticism against the chief justice, from within his own ranks, the Lahore High Bar Association, and from the politician Imran Khan. Mr Chaudhry no longer walks on water as far as many of his activist lawyers are concerned. It is likely that his replacement will not be as awkward a figure for Mr Sharif as Mr Chaudhry was to the former government.

More importantly, the army, too, is about to have a new leader. In his forthcoming book, Getting Away With Murder, the man who led the UN investigation in Bhutto's assassination, Heraldo Muñoz, describes the outgoing army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, as a professional soldier of independent mind. Mr Muñoz said that the general expressed doubts to him about the claim by his former boss Mr Musharraf that Bhutto had been assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban. He also spoke fondly of Bhutto, saying she had grown as a politician. All this further muddies the waters about who was really behind her assassination. The author himself concludes that almost everyone played a part.

Mr Musharraf was ill advised to return to Pakistan, where his political support has evaporated and where he spends his time under house arrest. Even with a new army chief and chief justice, Mr Sharif will have to balance the demand to seek justice for emergency rule, with the needs of a military that remains the most powerful institution in the land. A presidential pardon for Mr Musharraf, if convicted, could be one way out. Establishing the rule of law is going to take somewhat longer.

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