Islamabad, Pakistan – A special Pakistani court has convicted former military ruler Pervez Musharraf on high treason charges and sentenced him to death, an unprecedented verdict in a country that has been ruled by its military for roughly half its history.
The ruling, announced on Tuesday in the capital, Islamabad, marks the first time that a Pakistani military ruler has been convicted for actions undertaken while in power.
The conviction focuses on Musharraf’s suspension of the Constitution in 2007, near the end of his nine-year reign after seizing power in a coup in 1999.
While the country’s political opposition welcomed the verdict, Pakistan‘s government said it would be assessing a range of legal options and keeping in mind “the national interest” when evaluating its options.
The military, which continues to control major parts of security, foreign and domestic political policies, said it stood by the former army chief and felt the verdict was not fair.
“Constitutional and legal requirements were not fulfilled in the case,” Major-General Asif Ghafoor, the military’s spokesperson, said in a strongly worded statement.
Ghafoor added that the verdict had caused “pain and anguish” among the ranks.
Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) party said it was “appalled” at the decision and would be filing an appeal shortly.
Musharraf fled to the United Arab Emirates in 2016 and has remained in self-imposed exile, refusing to attend hearings of the court. He was not immediately available for comment.
In a video released from a hospital bed in Dubai earlier this month, the former military ruler termed the charges against him “baseless”.
After retiring as army chief and transitioning to a purely political role, Musharraf saw his party decimated in a 2008 general election.
That vote came after widespread protests the year before following his unsuccessful attempt to remove then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
As anti-government demonstrations spread across the country, Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3, 2007, suspending the constitution, deploying the army and taking direct control of the country.
The charges against him at the special court focused on the November 2007 imposition of emergency, and were filed in 2014.
‘A historic verdict’
The former military ruler may appeal the verdict at the country’s Supreme Court. A 1973 law dictating punishments for high treason offers the options of either death or life imprisonment.
Pakistan’s constitution also allows for the president to pardon those convicted of committing a crime, although this power has been used very sparingly in the past.
Following Tuesday’s verdict, Firdaus Ashiq Awan, the political head of Pakistan’s information ministry, said the government “will carry out a detailed examination”.
“Legal experts will analyse the impacts of it legally, politically and in terms of the national interest, and then a government statement will be presented before the media.”
The government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, had earlier unsuccessfully attempted to block the special court from delivering a verdict in the case.
Analysts say the government – which includes several ministers and political leaders who also served under Musharraf – had been working with Musharraf’s legal team in the run-up to the verdict.
“The PTI government appeared to have been coordinating with the Musharraf defence team to prevent a negative verdict,” Cyril Almeida, a senior journalist, told Al Jazeera.
“Much of [Prime Minister Khan’s] cabinet and the government’s top lawyers have worked with Musharraf in the past and defended him in court. If past practice holds up, the PTI govt will likely seek its cues from the Musharraf legal team on what to do next in terms of an appeal and having the sentence suspended.”
Almeida termed the verdict “historic” in terms of its significance.
“It is a historic verdict, never before has a military dictator been held responsible, even symbolically, for overthrowing an elected government and suspending the Constitution,” he said.
‘Democracy is the best revenge’
The move comes weeks after the country’s Supreme Court questioned a government decision to grant the current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a three-year extension in his term.
Ultimately, the court ruled that Parliament needed to develop legislation on the subject, giving the army chief a six-month reprieve while legislators amended the rules as needed.
Almeida said the two decisions indicated the existence of “a flux” in civil-military relations in the country, but it was unclear if any major changes in the power balance were afoot.
“The current Chief Justice of Pakistan, Asif Khosa, who will retire this month, has doggedly pursued Musharraf over the years for his actions against the judiciary in 2007,” he said.
“Khosa also just signed off on a constitutionally suspect temporary extension of the current army chief, so, as ever in Pakistan, there is a mixed outlook.”
The political opposition, meanwhile, has lauded the verdict with the PML-N and PPP – both of whom have seen their governments overthrown by military coups in the past – praising the court’s decision.
“For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the idea of the Constitution’s supremacy is taking root and hopefully, from this, the custom of violating the Constitution will be finished,” Ahsan Iqbal, a PML-N leader, told reporters.
“Democracy is the best revenge,” tweeted Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP, quoting a statement made by his mother, former two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, shortly before her assassination in 2007.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim