It was an escape worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Moments after the Islamabad High Court cancelled former Pakistani military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf’s bail, making him liable for arrest, the barrel-chested ex-commando hastened out of the court room. Musharraf’s heavy security detail whisked him away into a bulletproof back SUV and sped off into the distance. Pakistan’s once absolute ruler became a fugitive.
To stave off the prospect of nights behind narrowly spaced bars, Musharraf has taken refuge in his fortified five-acre farmhouse on the edge of Islamabad. If he does get arrested on the high court’s orders, he may be spared the indignity of a lonely dark cell and be allowed to spend his time between court hearings under house arrest. As yet, the police have held back on arresting him and have instead put up a security cordon. Riot police wearing helmets and thick padding, holding shields and twirling long sticks blocked the main road leading Musharraf’s home.
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Normally, the police wouldn’t hesitate to arrest a civilian politician, as they often did during Musharraf’s rule. But their reluctance reveals just how sensitive the matter is. If Musharraf is arrested, he will become the first former army chief to have his wrists clasped in cold metal – a precedent few generals will be comfortable with. If he is put on trial, there is a risk that current members of the military leadership could get dragged into the legal quandary. “The army leadership will be involved in it,” says retired Lieut. Gen. Talat Masood, an analyst. “They cannot get away from it. They were involved in the decisions he took.”
Musharraf is facing charges of sacking and arresting scores of judges when he imposed a state of emergency in November 2007. The court’s move on Thursday was no doubt inflected by a strong element of revenge. As Musharraf fled the courtroom, angry lawyers chased after his vehicle. “Look, look who has run! Musharraf has run, Musharraf has run!” they chanted, in slogans reminiscent of the final year of Musharraf’s rule, when a popular lawyer-led movement to restore the judges and end military rule harried him.
Fearing that the army’s image would be tainted by his return, the current crop of top generals warned him not to hazard his journey back to Pakistan from foreign exile. “The army’s leadership warned him of all this,” says Masood. “They tried to dissuade him from coming to Pakistan.” The former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency even travelled to London to urge him to reconsider his plans at one stage. But Musharraf was determined to stage a political comeback, telling Pakistanis that he had returned to “save” the country when he arrived in Karachi a month ago. Since his arrival, though, the army has provided him with a large security escort in light of the threats he faces.