Lahore, March 18: Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf slipped out of the country in the early hours of Friday morning in a move widely interpreted as a sign the government has conceded defeat at the hands of an all-powerful military establishment.
The former army chief, who took power in a 1999 coup and was facing charges of treason, was finally removed from the country’s “exit control list” on Thursday after almost three years of being banned from international travel.
He had been prevented from leaving since April 2013, soon after he returned from self-imposed exile and became embroiled in a series of legal cases, including a historic government-initiated high treason trial.
That Musharraf had been banned from international travel for so long had been widely taken as a sign of the determination of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to defy staunch opposition from the army’s high command and prosecute the man who ousted him in the 1999 coup.
But in a press conference late on Thursday night, the interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, said the government would not prevent Musharraf from leaving on a Dubai-bound flight in order to seek medical attention overseas.
Khan said the government had relented because Musharraf had vowed to face all the cases against him and had “promised to return in four to six weeks”.
Musharraf’s lawyer said he would come back after having surgery on his back that he said was not available in Pakistan.
Many doubted that would be the case given the army would almost certainly not wish to see the return of a man who has become a key irritant in the always sensitive relationship between a dominant military establishment and a government yearning to reassert civilian supremacy.
Shaukat Qadir, a retired army officer, said the two sides appeared to have reached an accommodation.
“It is quite fair to think that a deal has been struck finally that perhaps the army wanted some time back,” he said. “Frankly I don’t think army chiefs should be exempt from anything but considering the circumstances hopefully he has now learned his lesson and won’t be coming back.”
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s party, vowed to launch country-wide protests against the government for allowing Musharraf to travel.
Musharraf returned from a life of self-imposed exile in Dubai and London in March 2013 in a disastrous bid to contest a seat in that year’s general elections. Only sparse crowds turned up to welcome him home at Karachi airport in a sign he had gravely overestimated his support. He later said he had gauged his popularity from the number of followers he had attracted to his Facebook page.
He was swiftly de-barred from contesting any seats in a general election in which the party of his nemesis Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), swept the board.
And he became ensnared in a series of legal cases, including one alleging complicity in the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Far more serious, however, was the decision by the government to set up a special court to try Musharraf for treason, not for his 1999 coup but for taking emergency rule powers in 2007.
A successful prosecution would not only have risked a potential death sentence, it would also have amounted to an extraordinary challenge to the power and prestige of the country’s dominant military class.
The army was accused of taking drastic measures to find excuses for Musharraf not to appear in person at the trial when it was launched under heavy security in the capital.
On one occasion a roadside bomb was reportedly found along the way to the court just before Musharraf’s convoy was about leave his “farm house” in the suburbs of Islamabad. Later he claimed to have suffered a heart scare while on route to the court, causing a diversion to a military hospital where he remained for months on end.