The inevitable finally happened; a special court has finally formally charged Pakistan's former strongman General Pervez Musharraf on five counts, including treason on account of suspending the constitution on November 3, 2007. Musharraf expectedly pleaded "not guilty" in an emotional but composed response, saying he never even could imagine committing treason.
The former president was charged with treason under Article 6 for suspending, subverting and abrogating the constitution, imposing a state of emergency on the country in November 2007, making unlawful changes to it, and detaining judges of the superior courts.
In what appeared to be a shock to him, the court later also rejected Musharraf's request for permission to leave for Dubai to look after his 94-year-old ailing mother. It said allowing Musharraf to leave the country was the executive's prerogative. This way, the court threw the ball in the government's court. Interestingly, State Prosecutor Akram Sheikh had told the court in the morning, the government had no objection if the accused wanted to go abroad to see his ailing mother.
Following months of delaying tactics by his lawyers, the special court had, on March 14, issued non-bailable arrest warrants for the former president, instructing the authorities to arrest him if he failed to present himself before the court on March 31.
"Whatever I did, I did for the country and its people. I am sad that I am being called a traitor," stated a composed Musharraf, claiming that he made Pakistan a respectable country during his tenure and recalling that he also defended the country in two major wars with India.
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Musharraf insisted that he did not make decisions alone. His counsels reportedly have submitted a list of some 269 "collaborators" of Musharraf between 1999 and 2007, when he imposed a state of emergency and suspended dozens of senior judges, including former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The list also included General Ashfaq Kayani, the former army chief and once one of Musharraf's most trusted associates since the coup in 1999.
Legal experts say the trial will now likely take its course.
"Once somebody pleads not guilty the prosecution has to prove otherwise, the onus is on the prosecution now," former Supreme Court Chief Justice Saeeduzama Siddiqi told the private Samaa TV.
Barrister Salman Akram Raja, hinting at the long-drawn process, said in an interview that, "The next step is the recording of witness statements as well as of depositions by the collaborators named by Musharraf’s lawyers."
But Musharraf supporters and his defence lawyers were upbeat. One barrister and close Musharraf associate stayed away from the proceedings protesting what he called the "controversial and biased conduct of judges", but insisted the prosecution had conceded their major contestation.
A lengthy trial
The head-on confrontation with the judiciary at the zenith of his rule invariably triggered the former army chief's downfall, prompting lawyers and politicians to unite for the judges' restoration. Faced with mounting opposition following general elections in February 2008, Musharraf resigned in August of that year and left the country within weeks.
Most critics have always been sceptical as to whether the government, which initiated the treason case under Article 6 of the constitution late last year, really wanted him prosecuted.
Musharraf's second appearance before the court on Monday, underscored a major step forward in Pakistan's democratic transition; never before had a former army chief and president faced indictment.
The run-up to Musharraf's second appearance following 35 hearings, accompanied by heated arguments between the prosecution and defence lawyers and delaying tactics, has not been shorn of dramatic and curious twists and turns. On two previous occasions he dodged the court following a mysterious discovery of "explosives" near his farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad. The explosives were somehow both amateurishly rigged and expertly unearthed.
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In January, when he did manage to leave his home for another court hearing, Musharraf suddenly fell ill on the way; his car was swiftly diverted to the military-run Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) hospital, where he has been ensconced for nearly three months.
Source of tensions
The nature of his illnesses, however, remained disputed. At times he complained of chest pains, while a leaked medical report said that he was beset by nine different ailments, including hypertension, a clogged artery, a rickety knee, and some trouble with his spine.
Though the army practically denied any role in his admission to the military-run hospital, most observers agreed it wouldn't be possible without tacit support of General Headquarters (GHQ), now headed by General Raheel Sharif.
Providing shelter to Musharraf at the military hospital also signalled to the civilian government that the army, still a predominant political force, disfavoured the witch-hunting of its former chief.
The case took a surprising turn on March 30, when Farogh Nasim, a barrister ideologically close to Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and a member of Pakistan's Upper House - the Senate - appeared on Musharraf's behalf. Nasim's association with Musharraf offered another twist in the case; the MQM is the only party that has publicly supported Musharraf.
The three-member bench rejected Nasim's request for a several week adjournment and allowed him only two weeks to prepare for the next hearing. It, however, excused Musharraf from personal appearance when the case resumes in two weeks.
The court's rather favourable ruling about Musharraf's travel abroad has sparked hopes the former army chief may soon be heading out for what would be an end to months of an ordeal that he probably had never envisioned before returning to Pakistan in 2013.
As of now, the process seems set for protracted proceedings, and therefore with no immediate fallout for the civil-military relations. If Musharraf somehow manages to leave the country, that will probably provide a big relief to the government which had increasingly looked to be choking under the gauntlet it had thrown at him.
So, the disappearance of Musharraf from the national scene - under whatever conditions - would not only relieve the government of a headache it asked for, but also take out a big source of distraction from other pressing issues such as the tenacious Taliban insurgency and the challenge of economic revival.
Imtiaz Gul is Executive Director of the Islamabad-based independent Centre for Research and Security Studies. The Centre is a research and advocacy outfit, focused primarily on security, radicalisation and governance.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.