Pakistan’s security establishment has a history of using politically motivated trials to get rid of inconvenient civilian governments. Most famously, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s 1977 coup was finalised when a military court sentenced Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to death following what international officials dismissed as a mock trial fought in a Kangaroo court. Troublingly, there are reasons to worry that Pakistan may be witnessing another political trial against a democratically elected civilian government.
This latest chapter began with American businessman Mansoor Ijaz’s claim that Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, acting on the direction of the country’s president, sought American support for replacing Pakistan’s military leadership in order to prevent a possible coup. Mr. Ijaz, whose bizarre claims have been strongly questioned by the international media, has found himself an unlikely celebrity in Pakistan where his years of accusing Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies of facilitating international terrorism have been largely ignored in favour of his allegations against democratically elected civilian officials.
Despite serious questions about the accuser’s credibility, a media circus erupted over the issue. The first casualty of Ijaz’s allegations was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, who was driven to resign despite an absence of formal evidence suggesting his involvement. At the time of this writing, Pakistan is still operating without a permanent Ambassador to the world’s most powerful nation.
In response to the media uproar, Prime Minister Gilani announced a parliamentary commission to investigate the issue, only to have the rug pulled out from under him by the judiciary when the Chief Justice accepted a petition by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and announced that the Supreme Court would hold its own investigation, further ordering the country’s civilian and military officials to respond within 15 days.
Asad Jamal, a Lahore-based advocate of the high court, reviewed the Supreme Court’s justification for taking up the issue and found the decision completely outside the constitutional jurisdiction of the court.
The irony of Nawaz Sharif presenting the petition before the court was not lost on Pakistanis as Mr Sharif himself has been convicted by multiple courts on charges ranging from corruption to highjacking and terrorism. The cases were well known to be politically motivated, and many of the convictions were later overturned citing lack of evidence.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about Nawaz Sharif’s latest legal gambit is that not only has the former Prime Minister himself been the subject of judicial persecution, but he has even been accused of the same charges that he is now petitioning the court to investigate.
According to Shaheen Sehbai, an editor at The News (Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper) reported in 1998 that Nawaz Sharif and his emissaries held secret meetings with U.S. government officials during which they asked the Americans for support in changing the military leadership who they suspected of plotting a coup. In return, Nawaz Sharif allegedly promised to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and task the ISI with supporting CIA operations to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The following year, the government fell in a military coup and Nawaz Sharif found himself hauled before a court and quickly handed a life sentence. Sound familiar?
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has already placed Husain Haqqani on the nation’s Exit Control List (ECL), barring him from travel despite the fact that he vehemently denies the allegations leveled against him, returned to Pakistan of his own free will, and has yet to be formally charged with any wrongdoing. In contrast, the court has not taken any position on his accuser, Mansoor Ijaz, who has made nearly daily appearances in the Pakistani media repeating his allegations.
Though this latest episode in Pakistan’s political history is unfolding in deeply troubling ways, there are reasons to hold out hope. The judicial inquiry suffered its first setback when the man appointed by the court to head the commission, former Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency, Tariq Khosa, refused to take part.
And Husain Haqqani himself is not without significant supporters in Pakistan’s legal community. After reviewing the merits of the case, Asma Jahangir — one of Pakistan’s leading human rights advocates and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association — offered to defend Haqqani before the court. As compensation, she is asking only 4,000 Rupees — about $45.
Still, many in Pakistan and abroad are watching the proceedings anxiously. If Pakistan holds democratic elections as planned in 2013, it will be a historic moment for the country when the next government forms. Not once has Pakistan seen a transition between consecutive democratically elected governments. More often, we have seen the democratic process derailed by a misguided judiciary. Let’s hope history is not repeating itself.