Lahore: In a huge relief for Pakistan's self-exiled former dictator, a top court here on Monday declared Pervez Musharraf's trial in the high treason case as "unconstitutional", leading to the annulment of the death sentence against the ex-Army chief by a special tribunal.
The special court in Islamabad on December 17 last handed down the death penalty to the 74-year-old retired general, now based in Dubai, after six years of hearing the high-profile treason case against him.
The case was filed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2013.
A three-member full bench of the Lahore High Court comprising Justices Syed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi, Mohammad Ameer Bhatti and Chaudhry Masood Jahangir unanimously declared the formation of the special court against Musharraf as "unconstitutional".
The court also ruled that the treason case against Musharraf was not prepared in accordance with the law. The current government of Prime Minister Imran Khan had backed Musharraf in challenging the death penalty.
"The Lahore High Court has declared unconstitutional all actions right from initiation of complaint and its conclusion against General (retd.) Musharraf by the special court," Additional Attorney General of Pakistan Ishtiaq A Khan told PTI.
"Gen Musharraf is a freeman now," he added.
Reacting to the verdict, Musharraf, the former Pakistan Army chief, lauded the verdict of the Lahore High Court, saying that the court made the decision according to the law and Constitution.
In an audio statement, he said, "I cannot comment on it but the decision is really good, I am very happy that the judgement is as per the law and Constitution." He said his condition was gradually improving.
"I am grateful to all those who prayed for my health," Geo News quoted Musharraf as saying in Dubai.
The special court found that the ex-president, now living in Dubai on self-exile, guilty of high treason by abrogating the Constitution and imposing extra-constitutional emergency in Pakistan in November 2007 and handed him the death sentence.
Additional Attorney General Khan earlier told the Lahore High Court that the special court was constituted without the formal approval of the Cabinet. He also maintained that the charges filed against the former president were flimsy since, under the emergency powers of the executive, fundamental rights could be suspended.
In its verdict, the LHC also said that the Article 6 of the Constitution was modified through the 18th Amendment in 2010, while the case against Musharraf concerned events that happened before that.
Justice Naqvi had asked the federal government on Friday to submit the order on the formation of the special court and had directed the government's lawyer to present arguments on Monday.
Monday's ruling came in response to a petition filed by him challenging the formation of the special court for the high treason case against him.
In his petition, Musharraf asked the court to set aside the special court's verdict for being illegal, without jurisdiction and unconstitutional, while also seeking suspension of the verdict till a decision on his petition was made.
The special court had also ordered that corpse of the former military ruler should be dragged to parliament and hang for three days if he dies before his execution.
Prime Minister Imran Khan's government became furious over the ruling and said it will move to the Supreme Judicial Council to unseat the "mentally unfit" head of the special court.
The verdict of the special court also angered the powerful army has ruled the country for nearly half of its 72-year history. The Army said the ruling against Gen Musharraf was against all human, religious and civilisational values.
"An ex-Army Chief, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee and President of Pakistan, who has served the country for over 40 years, fought wars for the defense of the country can surely never be a traitor," Army spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said after the special court's ruling last month.
Musharraf was the first military ruler convicted for subverting the Constitution. Though he was not the first General to do so. Three Pakistan Army chiefs including Gen Ayub Khan, Gen Yahya Khan and Gen Zia-ul-Haq also abrogated the Constitution but never faced any court.
The PML-N government had filed the treason case against the former army chief in 2013 over the imposition of an extra-constitutional emergency in November 2007, which led to the confinement of a number of superior court judges in their houses and sacking of over 100 judges.
Musharraf ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008.
In August 2008, he finally resigned in the face of impeachment proceedings by the new governing coalition, going into exile until his ill-starred homecoming in 2013, exiling himself once more three years later.