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Opinion: A clear message to the Pakistani military

Opinion: A clear message to the Pakistani military

Let's be assured that former military dictator Pervez Musharraf will not be executed after a special court awarded him the death sentence in a highly unexpected verdict on Tuesday. Also, no matter how serious the crime, we must never endorse the capital punishment.

The Pakistani military is an immensely powerful institution, so much so that all civilian institutions, including the judiciary, have largely remained subservient to it for at least six decades. Musharraf is a former army chief, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1999 to 2008. Although he now lives in a self-imposed exile in the UAE, he is respected by the current military commanders for his "services" during his tenure.

Read more: Lawyer: 'Musharraf isn't running away from trials'

Also, the military will never want its ex-chief to be hanged. It would significantly dent its image and curtail its political power in the country.

The court verdict has already done a lot of damage to the army. The symbolic value of the ruling should not be underestimated. It sends out a clear message to the military generals that they are not above the law; that they could also be tried and punished for suspending and violating the constitution. It is a message that the military must abide by their constitutional role and not interfere in politics.

The powerful military would most likely ensure that Musharraf is not harmed in any way. And there are legal ways to counter the special court's verdict. Musharraf can still challenge the decision in the Supreme Court. There, the death sentence could be reversed or diluted. Pakistan's judiciary has a chequered record of endorsing military coups and has time and again provided legal cover to military dictators. So a different decision from superior courts cannot be ruled out.

Read more: Bhutto murder case: Musharraf declared fugitive by Pakistani court

Civilian assertion

But politics in Pakistan has changed a lot in the past decade. Civilian institutions are increasingly asserting themselves against the army.

During his third term as premier (2013-2017), former PM Nawaz Sharif — who was ousted in a bloodless military coup by Musharraf in 1999 — tried to rein in the military's powers. The industrialist-premier wanted to forge closer ties with India so that Pakistan could do away with the "security state" narrative. This, he believed, would bring in more foreign investment into the country and ultimately diminish the military's power.

Read more: Why ousted Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif turned against the powerful military

Other institutions, too, are taking an independent line. We must not forget that Musharraf's ouster was only made possible because of a massive lawyers' movement in 2007. Recently, Asif Saeed Khosa, the Supreme Court chief justice, only conditionally approved the tenure extension for General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the country's army chief. Now Prime Minister Imran Khan must pass a law in parliament to support his government's decision to grant a second term to the army chief.

The military finds itself in a precarious situation, with an independent media and a growing civil society also raising their voice. The military's involvement in politics is being slammed more than ever in Pakistan, which must be a cause of concern for the military leadership.

Read more: Musharraf's indictment 'divisive' for Pakistan

A new social contract

Meanwhile, international pressure on the Pakistani military has also been on the rise. In October, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force group gave Pakistan four months to prove it was fighting terror financing. Since coming to power, US President Donald Trump has also substantially reduced American military aid for Pakistan.

But that does not mean that the military will not fight back. And a clash of institutions in a nuclear-armed country with countless Islamist groups is not a very pleasant thought. Therefore, what Pakistan needs now is a new social contract that ensures that all state institutions function within their constitutional ambit.

It is also high time that the military generals sit together, surrender some of their powers and accept the civilians' right to rule the country. A country like Pakistan, which sits on many geopolitical fault-lines, cannot afford a prolonged intra-institutional confrontation.

Read more: Protests against Pakistan's Imran Khan: Right-wing vs. right-wing

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