Musharraf Flees a Court — and Puts Pakistan’s Generals in a Quandary

Ensconced in a villa protected by barbed wire, the former dictator tries to avoid further legal problems even as he gives the all-powerful military a huge political headache

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Associated Press

Pakistan's former President Pervez Musharraf presents his party's manifesto leaflets at his residence in Islamabad on April 15, 2013

It was an escape worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Moments after the Islamabad High Court canceled former Pakistani military ruler General 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 black 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 5-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. General 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 traveled 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.

Musharraf’s fate will be a test for the army. For the past five years, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has keenly cultivated an image of a professional soldier who wants democracy to continue. If the army now decides to interfere with the process and rescue Musharraf from his legal miseries, mere weeks before Pakistan’s next elections, they could face a backlash. Last year, Kayani signaled his displeasure when the Supreme Court was poised to take action against another former army chief and a former head of the ISI for rigging the 1990 elections. “It is difficult for the army to defend Musharraf at this time,” says Masood, the retired general. “It would be much worse than not defending him. The moment you start defending, you are admitting your guilt and saying that you are part of what Musharraf has done.”

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The arrest orders merely represent the latest, and by no means the last, of Musharraf’s travails. Earlier this week, judges from the lower courts ruled that he could not stand in the forthcoming elections. His decision to impose a state of emergency was given as the reason, even though he has not been convicted of that charge. At the same time, Musharraf faces other cases, including for his alleged involvement in the assassinations of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former governor of Baluchistan Akbar Bugti. Musharraf denies the charges. Musharraf could appeal to the Supreme Court for his bail to be renewed, but judges there have been busy this past week hearing petitions to try the fallen dictator for treason for having subverted the constitution.

Musharraf’s opponents are deriving some quiet satisfaction from his troubles. The media he muzzled delighted in replaying clips of the hasty court exit alongside of a montage of old photos of Musharraf from his more stressful days, holding back his jet-black hair as he stared into the distance. Some former politicians thundered against him on television. Others had quieter reactions. “It isn’t nice for anyone to have to go through this,” says a former parliamentarian from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party who was arrested and beaten after the Musharraf coup. “But I still remember how Musharraf forced me to see my mother and children in handcuffs. It would fill their eyes with tears,” the politician said, asking not to be named.

It is unclear why Musharraf returned, given the controversies he has triggered. Last week, he confessed to CNN that he entered a secret deal with the U.S. to allow the CIA to operate drones in Pakistan. For years he had denied it and inexplicably chose the moment of his return to Pakistan to finally come clean. Some ascribe the decision to vanity. Years of a progressively quieter exile denied him the headlines he craves, critics say. That is no longer a problem.

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Musharraf will also finally have time to enjoy the villa he built but had to abandon when he went into exile. He will also be safer there than on the campaign trail. TIME visited the residence when it was completed in 2008. It is tastefully designed with Mediterranean touches. There is a fishpond, a walking track and endless coils of barbed wire. There is a view of the surrounding greenery from every room in the house. And there is a shaded terrace, where he can sit, pull on his fat Cuban cigars, sip his favorite whisky, and reflect on the capricious turns of history.