Pakistani Gen. Musharraf's Past Comes Back To Haunt Him

For the first time in its history, Pakistan is poised to put a former president and army chief of staff on trial. A special court has been convened to hear allegations against General Pervez Musharraf. He's charged with committing treason after he suspended the nation's constitution in 2007 and declared a state of emergency.

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It is true that politics in many places can be a dangerous game. And this is especially true in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf was that country's military ruler for nearly a decade. This year he returned home after four years of self-imposed exile. The former dictator was hoping to run for office again, instead he's set to become the first ever ex-army chief to be tried for treason. NPR's Phillip Reeves has the story.

PHILLIP REEVES, BYLINE: Opponents of Musharraf have a long list of grievances. There's the coo in which Musharraf seized power in 1999, there's his crack-down on Pakistan's judiciary in which he sacked the Chief Justice, there's the arrest and detention of lawyers who took to the streets to protest. But the treason case against Musharraf concerns just one item on that list. Something that happened one night, 6 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: Inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan and I cannot allow this country to commit to suicide.

REEVES: On the third of November, 2007, General Musharraf appeared on TV to announce that he was imposing a state of emergency on Pakistan. Musharraf's excuse was that he was saving Pakistan from turmoil. Including the confrontation with the judiciary and also a rapidly spreading Islamist insurgency. Under emergency rule, the turmoil grew - so did the opposition to his rule, led by Pakistan's lawyers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

REEVES: The following year, facing the threat of impeachment, Musharraf resigned. Now Musharraf's past is returning to haunt. The civilian prime minister who Musharraf deposed back in 1999 was Nawas Sharif. Sharif's back in office and seems determined to make sure no army general can seize power again. Prosecuting Musharraf for treason is one way of doing that, says Ziauddin Muhammad, editor of the Express Tribune Newspaper.

ZIAUDDIN MUHAMMAD: Nawas and most of the politicians in this country perhaps have come to the conclusion that they need to punish a military general once for all.

REEVES: The accusation against Musharraf is that by imposing a state of emergency, he violated Pakistan's constitution. Lawyer Ahmad Raza Kasuri (ph) is number two in Musharraf's political party. Kasuri says, trying the general for treason will open up Pandora's box because hundreds of top officials were involved in imposing the emergency.

AHMAD RAZA KHAN KASURI: We have prepared a list of roughly about 800 people, military generals, senior bureaucrats, about 80 judges of the superior courts.

REEVES: Kasuri disputes the evidence against Musharraf and says, the real reason the government's pursuing the case is because Pakistan's in trouble.

KASURI: This a divisory tactic because people of Pakistan eyes are focused on poverty, hunger, price high.

REEVES: The lawyers enclave in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, is a warren of alleys. Clerks sit on wooden benches outside and for a few cents tap out affidavits on battered computers. It'll be a long time before the lawyers here forget their battle to stop Musharraf interfering with the judiciary. Nissa Shah (ph) wound up in jail for leading an anti-Musharraf demonstration. He says, he's glad the general's going to be tried for treason. He thinks it's important to defend Pakistan's constitution. As for that warning about opening a Pandora's box...

NISSA SHAH: (Through translator) Let it be opened. Let's expose those who have committed crimes in the past. This is doing Pakistan a great service.

REEVES: Analysts warn that this case could take Pakistan into precarious terrain. Pakistan's civilian leaders and the military top ranks have an abrasive relationship. Trying Musharraf risks further alienating the generals and that's dangerous.

KASURI: Army is one extended clan.

REEVES: Ahmad Raza Kasuri (ph) from Musharraf's political party says, army officers are not happy that their former chief's facing prosecution.

KASURI: People are talking, the people are feeling very upset that a man from our clan is being mistreated, you see.

REEVES: Attempts are being made to prosecute Musharraf for several other alleged offenses. Though their success is far from certain. Analysts say the treason case is Musharraf's biggest problem. If convicted, he faces life in prison or theoretically the death penalty. Though that's considered very unlikely. Kasuri says, the general's undeterred.

KASURI: He is particularly strong. He is a commander and commanders are very brave people.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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