Will Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf be convicted of treason?

Pakistani police stand guard as the vehicle (C) carrying former military ruler Pervez Musharraf leaves a special court after a hearing in Islamabad on March 31, 2014. As Mr Musharraf left court on Monday, his future was uncertain...

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The indictment of Pakistan's former military president, Pervez Musharraf, on charges of treason is being seen as a milestone on the way to becoming a functioning democracy.

For a country where powerful army generals overthrew civilian leaders on at least three different occasions, Mr Musharraf's trial is unprecedented.

It's the first time a former army chief is being held accountable for his alleged constitutional violations.

Mr Musharraf denies the charges - if he is convicted he faces death or life imprisonment, the punishments for high treason in Pakistan.

For pro-democracy activists, the indictment is as much about fighting the last military dictator, as it is about preventing any future military takeovers.

But some believe that this is as far as it might go.

Cases against Musharraf

Since Pervez Musharraf's return to Pakistan in March 2013, he has faced four criminal cases but was bailed in all of them. He was charged:

  • In connection with the 2006 killing of a rebel Baloch politician, Akbar Bugti
  • In connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto
  • For putting nearly 60 senior judges under house arrest in November 2007
  • Although he was not formally charged, he is on bail in connection with the killing of a cleric in the 2007 Red Mosque siege in Islamabad

His most serious challenge is a treason case, which bears five charges including suspending the constitution and imposing emergency rule. He has pleaded not guilty but could face death if convicted.

Few believe the trial will actually lead to his conviction.

The main reason, it would seem, is the support Mr Musharraf still seemingly enjoys in his parent institution, the armed forces. Conventional wisdom in Pakistan suggests the army would not allow their former chief to be disgraced in that manner.

Analysts believe that over the years, Pakistan's powerful generals have conceded some space to the country's increasingly assertive democratic institutions, but there are limits to it.

Mr Musharraf's rival, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will be aware of not crossing any red lines. He needs his army chief on his side in helping run the country, tackling the Taliban threat and managing ties with India and Afghanistan.

For his part, Mr Musharraf is now keen to get out of Pakistan. His team has asked the government to remove a travel ban to allow him to visit his elderly mother who is in hospital in the United Arab Emirates and to seek his own medical treatment abroad.

As the prime minister, Mr Sharif could make that call on humanitarian grounds. It would allow him to take the high moral ground as a reformed statesman, not a vindictive politician interested in getting even with his once handpicked army chief who then overthrew his elected government and put him jail on terrorism charges.

General Musharraf later allowed Mr Sharif and his family to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Supporters of former President Pervez Musharraf, head of the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) political party, chant slogans during a protest demanding a fair trial for him in Karachi March 30, 2014. Mr Musharraf has some supporters... but not many
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf look at light machine gun captured from Indian soldiers during Kargil crisis in this undated file photo in Kashmir. 11/11/1999 Nawaz Sharif (left) and his then army chief in happier times in 1999

Cabinet ministers insist that the government's treatment of Mr Musharraf is not about the bitter rivalry between him and Mr Sharif. But in a strange twist of fate, it is now up to the latter whether or not to allow his erstwhile nemesis to leave the country.

Then, as now, the quiet, behind-the-scenes role of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies is seen as the key to any arrangement that effectively allows Mr Musharraf to go into exile.

But what if Mr Sharif is not ready to let Mr Musharraf off the hook so easily?

Since his return from self-imposed exile in March 2013, the former president has faced a host of criminal and murder charges.

The manner in which the government and the courts pursued one case after another gave credibility to claims by Mr Musharraf that he was being politically victimised.

In late 2013, just as it was becoming clear that he would be granted bail in the last of those cases, came the government announcement that a special court would be constituted to try him for high treason.

For the last three months or so, Mr Musharraf has avoided facing the court, citing security concerns and ill health.

Now that the charges have been framed, some worry that the trial could drag on for months, if not years.

Others point to the complex nature of the trial in trying to fix responsibility for alleged constitutional violations on one man.

The BBC's Shumaila Jaffrey describes the scene at Musharraf's court hearing

Mr Musharraf's team has maintained that he did not act alone in imposing emergency rule.

A former Musharraf aide warns the trial would open up a Pandora's box. According to him, it would inevitably involve dragging several senior members of his government, as well as serving and retired military officials, into the case.

His team says the former military president acted on the advice of the then prime minister and in consultation with his senior aides, who are said to have backed his controversial steps.

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