The possible return to Pakistan of its former president Pervez Musharraf for the first time since he left the country in 2016 has reopened a bitter debate over the military dictatorship he ruled for more than a decade.
Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup that overthrew the government of Nawaz Sharif, and served as president from 2001 until 2008, when he resigned to avoid impeachment. Since then he has spent most of his time in self-imposed exile in the UK and the Middle East.
A key US ally in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, his tenure in power became notorious for his oppression and widespread human rights abuses, particularly in his later years. In 2007 he suspended the constitution, imposed martial law, sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and arrested activists and lawyers, sparking mass protests.
The 78-year-old suffers from amyloidosis, a rare disease that occurs when an abnormal protein builds up in organs and interferes with normal functions. He has been hospitalized in the United Arab Emirates for a few weeks and his family say he is not expected to recover. Local media reported that he had expressed a desire to spend the “rest of his life” in his home country, and on Tuesday a military spokesman said that wish should be granted.
Raza Rabbani, former senate speaker, said he strongly opposed the return of the ailing former president, describing the Musharraf era as “a saga of oppression in Pakistan”.
Rabbani told the Guardian that Musharraf had left a trail of institutions weakened by his attempts to “rewrite civil-military relations in favor of the military”. He also accused him of overseeing political killings and of “selling and bartering Pakistanis to America and capitulating the interests of Pakistan”. [to the US] after 9/11.
Musharraf once infamous said in an interview: “I think the constitution is just a piece of paper to be thrown away.”
During his rule, Sharif and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, were barred from running for office and went into exile. Bhutto returned to Pakistan amid death threats in 2007. She claimed she was threatened by Musharraf. Shortly after her return, Bhutto was murdered in Rawalpindi.
Musharraf returned from voluntary exile in March 2013 in a disastrous bid to contest a seat in that year’s general election. High treason charges against him began in 2014, but in 2016 Musharraf was allowed to leave the country on medical grounds – a decision that has been widely interpreted as a sign of the government’s surrender to the military establishment. .
Harris Khalique, secretary general of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, said Musharraf encouraged the May 11 riots in Karachi in 2007, in which 48 people died. He also accused Musharraf of encouraging enforced disappearances of political dissidents and sparking an insurgency in Balochistan when he launched a military operation in the province.
Musharraf’s defenders say private media made progress under his rule, but journalist Hamid Mir said the introduction of private media actually happened under Bhutto.
“What Musharraf did instead was introduce systematic censorship,” Mir said. “All private channels were blocked by the military regime in November 2007 for covering the restoration of the judicial movement.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, an author and political worker, said Musharraf had earned “bounties” from Washington by joining the so-called “war on terror”. Musharraf has authorized drone attacks on former tribal areas and provided safe haven for some factions of the Afghan Taliban.
“Like all dictators before him, Musharraf was unceremoniously removed from power, and his family’s desperate attempts to bring him back to Pakistan on his deathbed are a sad accusation both from the supreme power of the military establishment and of his refusal to give it up,” Akhtar said. .
In 2019, Musharraf was convicted of treason for suspending the constitution and imposing a state of emergency in 2007. He was sentenced to death. The judgment was later overturned.
Khalique said Musharraf should be allowed to return on humanitarian grounds, but also that Pakistan should establish a truth and reconciliation commission to mark 75 years of independence in August.
“Set the record straight, move forward and focus on the wrongs of despotic civilian rulers and dictators since Ayub Khan. A record of the past 75 years,” he said.