Pakistan’s Government Criticizes Judiciary, Siding With Army

Khalid Qayum and Kamran Haider

(Bloomberg) -- Top ministers in Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government have criticized the judiciary for sentencing a former army chief to death, and suggested the move may increase the possibility of confrontation with the military leading to political strife.

On Tuesday, a special court handed down the death penalty in absentia to Pervez Musharraf for the crime of high treason for suspending the constitution as the president in 2007. The verdict came two weeks after the Supreme Court ordered that current army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s three-year extension needed the approval of Parliament.

The courts should have shown more “restraint, ” said Fawad Hussain, minister for science and technology in a TV interview on Wednesday. “You pushed the institution against the wall. It is an honor-based institution. If you keep doing this won’t they react?”

Railway minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said at a public rally Wednesday the action of the courts would widen differences between the military and the civilian government. Neither official spelled out how they thought such tensions would play out.

The military has directly or indirectly ruled the country for much of its existence and asserted control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policies and in political dealings even when civilian governments have been in power. The verdicts are likely to be viewed as humiliation for a military used to calling the shots.

They add to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political woes at a time when he already faces growing demands from opposition parties to resign amid rising inflation and tough economic reforms being implemented under the International Monetary Fund’s $6 billion rescue package.

Khan, who was a strong critic of Musharraf and had demanded that he be tried for treason in past, is seen as being close to Bajwa and has come out in support of the military. A number of his ministers and officials were part of Musharraf’s government including railway minister Ahmed, science and technology minister Hussain, while law minister Farogh Naseem and the attorney general Mansoor Ali Khan have been the former general’s lawyers in the past.

Judge Under Fire

On Thursday Law Minister Naseem said at a press conference the government will seek the removal of judge Waqar Ahmad Seth, who when sentencing Musharraf to death said that his body should be hanged in public for three days should he die before being arrested. In its communication with the Supreme Judicial Council, the government will challenge Seth’s mental capability as a judge, Naseem added.

The Pakistan Bar Council however condemned the criticism of the verdict by the government and the army, according to a statement on Thursday night. Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said at a meeting of Supreme Court justices on Friday that a malicious campaign has been initiated against the judiciary but the truth will prevail, the Dawn newspaper reported.

The main opposition parties have also backed the courts. The Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have both had government’s ousted by military coups.

In the past when state institutions like the army, judiciary and the political parties have clashed with each other in Pakistan it has resulted in political upheaval.

Musharraf was forced to resign as president in 2008 after a yearlong lawyers’ protest following his dismissal of then Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. In 2017, then premier Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court on charges of corruption after his clashes with the army over foreign and security policy weakened his government.

The judiciary’s assertive stance is “an unprecedented event in Pakistan’s history,” said Rashid Ahmed Khan, professor and head of Politics and International Relations Department at University of Central Punjab, Lahore. “It will have ramification in civil-military relations of Pakistan.”

Widening Gaps

The army has reacted especially strongly to the verdict against Musharraf, the first time that a former military ruler has been tried for treason, saying in a statement that someone who served for over 40 years and fought wars in the defense of the country “can surely never be a traitor.”

It’s “been received with lot of pain and anguish by rank and file of Pakistan armed forces,” the statement from military spokesman General Asif Ghafoor said, noting the military expects justice will be dispensed in line with the constitution. “The due legal process seems to have been ignored.”

Musharraf twice suspended the constitution during his rule from 1999 to 2008 -- once when he toppled the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and the second time when he imposed emergency law in 2007. Musharraf, who has been in Dubai since 2016 seeking medical treatment and never attended the legal proceedings, has the right to appeal in the Supreme Court.

Pakistan has a history of being ruled by army dictators and has had martial law imposed four times since its creation in 1947. the army has also been blamed with manipulating the 2018 national elections to help Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf party win, a charge denied by both the premier and the army.

Khan’s government has vowed to act on the Supreme Court’s orders to approve legislation in Parliament within six months to ensure that Bajwa gets his term extension. Ministers in the government have also indicated challenging the verdict against Musharraf in a higher court.

Despite the conciliatory tone of the government, concerns remain about how the new developments will play out in Pakistan.

“I think this verdict will widen gaps. I see the situation is getting worse,” said railway minister Ahmed. “The army reaction is very bitter and strong. I have never seen such a strong reaction.”

(Updates with comments by Chief Justice in the ninth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Faseeh Mangi.

To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Qayum in Islamabad at kqayum@bloomberg.net;Kamran Haider in Islamabad at khaider2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Arijit Ghosh at aghosh@bloomberg.net, Muneeza Naqvi, Ruth Pollard

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