Pervez Musharraf, the man responsible for sending hundreds to the gallows during his iron-fisted reign in Pakistan, now finds his own head in a noose.
The former military ruler has been charged with a number of crimes since returning to Pakistan in March after years of self-imposed exile. In June, his long-standing archrival, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, upped the ante by calling for Musharraf to be tried for treason -- a crime that can carry a death sentence in Pakistan, usually by hanging.
The prospects of being sentenced for treason would not have been so worrisome for Musharraf just a few weeks ago, when a moratorium on the death penalty was in place in Pakistan. But on June 30 the moratorium expired after the country's newly elected civilian government decided not to renew the ban, arguing that the resumption of capital punishment could deter violent crime and terrorism.
In an ironic twist, the moratorium was implemented in the immediate aftermath of Musharraf's ouster as president in 2008. And with Musharraf's political nemeses now in power -- the presidency is held by Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, and the new civilian government headed by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PLM-N) leader Sharif -- the question arises whether there are ulterior motives behind the restoration of the death penalty.
Under Musharraf's rule, hundreds of Pakistanis were sentenced to death. In 2005 alone, Amnesty International revealed that at least 241 people were sentenced to death and at least 31 people were executed, the fifth-highest number in the world at the time after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
In addition, scores of Musharraf's political opponents were imprisoned, including former PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and the PML-N's Sharif.
After the 2008 parliamentary elections, the PPP and PML-N pushed for Musharraf's ouster, with the memory of Bhutto's 2007 assassination and Sharif's imprisonment fresh in their minds.
Forced to resign, Musharraf went into self-imposed exile abroad in November 2008 and shortly afterward the moratorium on the death penalty was imposed by presidential decree.
'An Act Of High Treason'
Among a litany of charges, Musharraf currently stands accused of violating the constitution by overthrowing Pakistan's elected government in a coup in 1999 and for dismissing judges and imposing emergency rule in 2007.
Addressing parliament on June 24, Prime Minister Sharif said Musharraf's actions "constituted an act of high treason" and that the former president should be charged and tried in court. If convicted of treason Musharraf, who maintains his innocence, would face life in prison or execution.
Sharif's position has widespread support in Pakistan, but experts say it's unlikely that he would be executed for treason. Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says any probe into Musharraf's crimes would implicate others, including officials of the country's powerful armed forces.
This leads Kugelman to doubt that the government would risk sparking a "witch hunt" that could disrupt the delicate political situation in Pakistan. "If there is an investigation, others will in all likelihood be implicated as well. Of course, this includes military officials, judges, and members of the national assembly, including members of the ruling party of the PLM-N," he says. "I don't know if the Nawaz Sharif government wants this to get to that point, because if it does that would really destabilize the political situation and could put his rule in jeopardy."
Back Into Exile?
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, says Musharraf is not a priority for the new democratically elected government, which is facing the difficult task of reviving a flagging economy, tackling a growing insurgency, and ending the country's long-running energy crisis.
Instead of a drawn-out and messy trial, Nawaz says, a deal could be struck that would allow Musharraf to leave Pakistan for a friendly country like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, where Musharraf has lived in exile before.
The ultimate decision on Musharraf will be with Pakistan's president, who must approve all executions. Zardari is due to step down in August and the parliament controlled by Sharif's supporters will elect a new head of state.
The new government has said it will execute all death-row prisoners except those pardoned on humanitarian grounds. Pakistan's Interior Ministry says up to 450 prisoners are currently awaiting execution. But London-based Amnesty International, which has called the resumption of executions in Pakistan a "shocking and retrograde step," estimates the number is as high as 8,000. The move also comes as thousands of suspects are being tried on terrorism charges.
Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's minister for planning and development, has defended the death penalty, saying it's key to deterring rising ethnic, sectarian, and gang violence in Pakistan's major urban areas as well as curbing rampant insurgent attacks in the country's restive northwest.