Musharraf permitted to run for presidency in uniform, storm ahead

By Muhammad Najeeb, IANS/Agencies

Islamabad : Pakistan’s Supreme Court Friday dismissed a clutch of petitions and allowed the beleaguered Pervez Musharraf to contest for presidency Oct 6 even while heading the army.

Support TwoCircles

The government hailed the 6:3 split verdict, which triggered protests outside the court. Lawyers spearheading an anti-Musharraf campaign threatened to besiege the Election Commission when it takes up the nominations Saturday.

The judgement was a shot in the arm for Musharraf, who has suffered greatly at the hands of the apex court in recent times and is faced with dipping popularity that worries his chief backer, the US.

If he is re-elected president, he will hold the post for five more years. Musharraf seized power in 1999 in a bloodless coup and sent prime minister Nawaz Sharif into exile.

A nine-judge bench headed by Justice Rana Bhagwandas dismissed petitions filed against Musharraf’s candidature challenging his right to hold the office of president while being the army chief.

Six judges gave a favourable verdict while three judges – Bhagwandas, Sardar Muhammad Raza Khan and Shakirullah Jan – wrote a non-favouring note. The ruling came at 3.35 p.m., 80 minutes behind schedule, in a packed courtroom.

Information Minister Tariq Azeem summed up the government mood: “It is a great victory for the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution. I would now ask everybody, including the opposition, to respect the decision and accept it.”

But lawyers, civil society activists and opposition parties were in no mood to listen. Hundreds blocked the Constitution Avenue after the court decision.

“The battle is not over, the war is not over. This was a skirmish, a disappointing one, but we will be back,” declared Munir Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, outside the court building where a dismayed throng of lawyers and flag-waving opposition activists gathered.

“The judiciary is still chained and subservient to the dictates of an army general,” rued Soha Khan, a civil society representative who had waited for the verdict for several hours.

Malik called upon the public to join a protest march Saturday from the Supreme Court to the offices of the Election Commission to lodge a protest against Musharraf’s registration.

“This is the most unfortunate decision,” said advocate Akram Sheikh, who pleaded the case against Musharraf’s candidature.

Those who filed the petitions were Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Tehrik-e-Insaaf chief and former cricketer Imran Khan, Pakistan Communist Party chief Jamil Malik and a host of others.

Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a Musharraf loyalist, was furious with the lawyers’ community.

“If lawyers want to do politics, they should join some political parties and let the system work,” he told reporters.

The president’s attorney, Sharifuddin Pirzada, had told the court that Musharraf would shed his uniform after his re-election, even before the swearing in.

When the court asked what would happen if Musharraf lost the election, the attorney replied that he would then remain the army chief.

Pitted against Musharraf would be some 40 candidates including Makhdoom Amin Fahim of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and former Supreme Court judge Wajihuddin Ahmed, who has support of lawyers as well most opposition parties.

But none of them stands a chance against the army chief who the US counts as its most important ally in the global war on terror. Musharraf’s close ties with Washington have in recent times made him Al Qaeda’s enemy number one.

Pakistan’s president is not elected by the people, but by a ballot of federal and provincial assemblies. The main opposition alliance of over 30 parties has announced a parliamentary boycott to protest his plans to stand for office.

“This has disappointed all of us, we should go for the critical option,” said Javed Hashmi, acting head of the opposition party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

“We have decided to resign from parliament because military dictatorship is not good for the people of Pakistan, therefore we will resist it,” he added.

At a separate Supreme Court session Friday, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry asked Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and other officials to explain their recent deportation of Sharif from the country.

Despite an earlier court ruling that Sharif could return home unimpeded after almost seven years in exile, he was arrested and put on a plane to Saudi Arabia within five hours of landing in Islamabad Sep 10.

Lawyers for Sharif are seeking a contempt of court verdict against those who expelled him and guarantees for his future return to Pakistan.

Musharraf needs to cross another hurdle though. The PPP has asked the Election Commission to look at his bachelor’s degree.

“I believe Musharraf is not a graduate,” PPP leader Babar Awan told reporters outside the Supreme Court. In Pakistan, usually cadets join the army after grade 10 or 12 and are not graduates.

Born Aug 11, 1943 at Daryaganj in the Indian capital, Musharraf joined the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961. He saw action in the 1965 war against India. Married with two children, he became the army chief in 1998.