Musharraf 'free to leave' Pakistan
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - Former Pakistani president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf is set to leave the country as a free man. Pakistan's top court on Wednesday granted him bail in the murder case of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a veteran Baloch nationalist leader, who was killed during an army operation in 2006 under the Musharraf government.
Musharraf at present his held at his lavish farmhouse residence on the outskirts of Islamabad, and his house arrest there is likely to end, his lawyers said, because he has been awarded bail in three major charges against him, including one relating to the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and in
cases over the suspension of judges during the emergency rule he imposed in 2007.
"The jail staff present at his house will pack up and leave as soon as they get the orders from the lower court," Ahmed Raza Kasuri, who heads the Musharraf defense team, told Reuters on Wednesday. "Musharraf can fly to Dubai tomorrow once these legal formalities are completed."
The former military ruler, who took power in a 1999 coup and was forced to step down in 2008, has been allowed to leave the country under a "safe exit" deal with the government of Nawaz Sharif, according to media reports. A plan for his departure was reportedly worked out to avoid civil-military tussle just after Sharif was elected prime minister in this year's May 11 general election.
Musharraf, 70, returned to Pakistan in March after four years in exile in London and Dubai to contest the election, pledging to save the country from economic collapse, extremism and militancy. However, he was disqualified from running and ultimately was trapped in several court cases stemming from his presidency.
A three-judge panel on Wednesday found insufficient evidence to implicate Musharraf in the 2006 killing of separatist leader Akbar Bugti during an army operation in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, according Musharraf's lawyers, who said their client was required to post surety bonds worth about US$19,500. The court decision to grant him bail will allow Musharraf to travel within and outside the country while facing charges, they said.
Musharraf's presence in Pakistan and his possible trial for treason were seen as a distraction for a government that is pursuing pressing issues such as ending the Pakistani Taliban terror campaign. Under the reported safe-exit deal, the government will not object if the former president is allowed to leave the country on the pretext of visiting his ailing 90-year-old mother, who lives in Dubai.
The retired general is still determined to clear his name of charges he has always maintained were politically motivated, Musharraf's spokesman Raza Bokhari said.
"After all these formalities are finalized he would be free to travel within and outside Pakistan, but this is just the beginning. These court cases are a long-run process," AFP reported Bokhari as saying. "He will continue to fight these cases until his name is clear of these false, fabricated and fictitious charges."
Some political observers believe that Saudi Arabia is likely to play a role in Musharraf's safe exit, following the pattern of 2000, when Sharif and his family were facing criminal cases and Saudi Arabia convinced Musharraf to let Sharif live in exile.
Sharif's initiative for Musharraf to be tried for abrogating the constitution when he imposed the state of emergency in November 2007 is believed to have been a face-saving move. Sharif had declared before this year's election that if his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was elected to rule the former general would be tried in a treason case.
Before returning to power this year, Sharif had served as prime minister from November 1990 to July 1993, and from February 1997 to October 1999. Sharif's return to power in May came more than 13 years after he himself was ousted, jailed and finally sent into exile by Musharraf. He spent seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia. Tussles with the military have led to the dismissal of his governments in the past. Many political observers believe that this time Sharif will not risk fueling tension with the military establishment that is loyal to Musharraf.
A message had reportedly been circulated within the army that Musharraf will be allowed to leave the country soon. The message was conveyed in a bid to pacify growing unease within the army over the trial of its former chief.
Mohammed Amjad, the secretary-general of Musharraf's political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, denied any deal was in place with the government for the retired general's safe exit and the reports that he planned to leave the country. Even if Musharraf did leave, he would come back to Pakistan to face all the cases against him, Amjad told reporters outside Musharraf's residence.
The former general has been under house arrest at his farmhouse on the edge of Islamabad since April. He faces serious threats to his life. The Pakistani Taliban have threatened to kill him because of his alliance with Washington in the US "war on terror" in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
Last month, the Islamabad High Court ordered the police to register a case against Musharraf over the alleged murder of cleric Abdul Rasheed Ghazi during the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) military operation launched under Musharraf's government in July 2007. On his return to Pakistan in March, an application was filed in the Supreme Court by Lal Masjid's former chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, requesting that Musharraf be placed on the Exit Control List (ECL). The application maintained that Musharraf was a prime suspect in the Lal Masjid operation and was wanted by the government in several cases.
The Lal Masjid operation, in which the military besieged the mosque in Islamabad for 12 days, led to more than 100 people being killed, including Ghazi. The charges against the former chief cleric of Lal Masjid included the kidnapping of Chinese massage therapists, hijacking a children's library and challenging the writ of the state.
The Lal Masjid operation is widely believed to have fueled a Taliban-led insurgency that has so far killed thousands of people across the country.
In August, Musharraf was charged with murder of former premier Benazir Bhutto, who died in a gun and suicide attack in December 2007. The court ruling in the case ended much of the perception that army generals still enjoyed impunity and were safe from prosecution in Pakistan. It reflected an unprecedented move on the part of judiciary to establish rule of law by making generals answerable for their acts of commission and omission.
Earlier speculation that Musharraf would be given a safe exit ended after Musharraf was charged with the assassination of Bhutto and Ghazi. It seemed that the former military strongman was being trapped in many cases to pave the ground for being charged with high treason. The judiciary vowed also to write history by initiating the trial of a former military ruler for high treason case for subverting the constitution.
Now the game seems to have turned in favor of the ex-dictator, free to leave the country after being granted bail in all the major cases filed against him.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider (http://www.syedfazlehaider.com) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan (2004). He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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