Pervez Musharraf, the former dictator of Pakistan who recently made a triumphant return to his country from exile only to be put under house arrest, has been charged with murdering former prime minister Benazir Bhutto today. Bhutto was killed in 2007, when a suicide bomber attacked a campaign rally only weeks after she returned to Pakistan after a self-imposed exile. Called Pakistan’s “Iron Lady,” she was a winner of numerous human rights awards and was Pakistan’s first and so far only female prime minister.
Musharraf had planned to contest parliamentary elections earlier this year but was soon found to be massively unpopular among voters. He was charged for a variety of crimes stemming from his 1999 coup d’état and subsequent nine-year rule as president. Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf deposed in the coup, won this year’s election and has supported Musharraf’s prosecution.
Sharif’s election brought hope that Pakistan would try to pursue a better relationship with arch-rival India and devise new strategies for dealing with militants. Sharif spoke about reaching out to India as soon as he took office, and in his first televised speech to the country since then he suggested that his administration supported negotiations with militant groups.
However, Sharif’s civilian government only has so much power in Pakistan. Real influence on foreign policy and defense is held by the military. Sharif might support talking to militant groups, but the army does not, and the army calls the shots. But with the Musharraf trial, Sharif is attempting to show the army that he is made of sterner stuff. Musharraf is the first high-ranking military officer in Pakistan’s history to face charges like these, and his prosecution could set a dangerous precedent. Declan Walsh, the New York Times journalist who was ejected from Pakistan on the eve of this year’s elections, wrote that Musharraf’s indictment is “a sudden erosion of military privilege and impunity” and a signal that “even Pakistan’s top generals are sometimes subject to the rule of law—at least after they have retired.”
“Inside the military,” Walsh continues, “the prospect of a former military chief facing a potential death penalty has caused simmering anger.”
By most accounts the case against Musharraf is thin. It’s likely that some kind of negotiated settlement will end the trial, perhaps with Musharraf going back into exile. It’s hard to imagine Pakistan’s military allowing Sharif to get too close to its red lines.
[Pervez Musharraf photo courtesy of Shutterstock]