ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister ordered officials Wednesday to begin a treason investigation into ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, bringing the government closer to putting the former army chief on trial.
The case sets up a possible clash between the government and Pakistan's powerful army, a worrisome prospect in a country that has a history of military coups. Musharraf could face life in prison or the death penalty if he is charged and convicted of treason.
The government told the Supreme Court on Monday that Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, should be put on trial for allegedly committing treason while in office. The government specifically cited his decision to declare a state of emergency and suspend the constitution in 2007.
The Supreme Court ordered the government to notify the judges by Wednesday of the steps it would take to try Musharraf and scheduled a hearing for the following day to hear the government's response.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Wednesday in a written reply to the court that the government would constitute a special team to investigate Musharraf for treason under Article 6 of the constitution. Following the completion of the investigation, the government will file the "requisite complaint" against Musharraf and constitute the special court required to try him for treason.
Imaur Rehman, a lawyer who has been critical of Musharraf, described the government's decision to open an investigation as a "bold step."
"Today's government decision should be seen as the first serious step toward holding Musharraf's trial on treason charges," said Rehman.
But another lawyer, Ghulam Nabi, cautioned that the government could use the investigation as a way to delay the case and avoid a confrontation with the army, which is considered the strongest institution in the country.
"I think the investigation officer, who will be appointed by the government, will take months to complete his work, and we don't know whether the officer would come up with enough evidence required to punish Musharraf," said Nabi.
Sadiqul Farooq, a spokesman for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party, said the government was determined to put Musharraf on trial for treason.
"No one should have any doubt in his or her mind about the intention of the government in putting Musharraf on trial for treason under Article 6 of the constitution," said Farooq. "The prime minister believes in the rule of law, and he thinks no one is above the law."
The case is personal for Sharif since he was serving as prime minister in 1999 when Musharraf carried out his coup. Musharraf ruled for nearly a decade but was forced to step down in 2008 because of growing public discontent. He spent years in exile before returning to the country in March.
The case is also personal for many judges and lawyers throughout Pakistan. Musharraf sacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court and other senior judges when he declared a state of emergency in 2007. He was forced to step down after lawyers across the country launched a protest movement against his actions.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan to run in the national election held in May but was disqualified from participating in the vote because of his actions while in office. He has spent most of his time battling legal cases and is currently under house arrest on the outskirts of Islamabad because of a separate case against him.
Musharraf can only be tried for treason if the federal government files charges against him. The caretaker government that ruled the country in the run-up to the May elections declined to bring charges, saying it was outside their mandate.
Many analysts speculated that Musharraf would be allowed to leave before the Sharif government took power earlier this month to avoid a confrontation with the army, but that didn't happen.
The army advised Musharraf not to return to the country because it was also worried about a confrontation, but the former military ruler ignored the advice. Even though the army was against his return, many analysts doubt the generals would be willing to let Musharraf be convicted for treason and could intervene to prevent it from happening.
Musharraf would be the first army chief put on trial for treason in a country that has experienced three military coups in its nearly 66-year history.