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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s new military regime led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf is eager to demonstrate that its decision to put former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on trial on charges of attempted murder and kidnapping is not necessarily driven by malicious intent. If convicted, Sharif could be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Some of Sharif’s supporters believe his life could be in danger, if history is a reliable guide. In 1977, the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested in a military coup led by Gen. Zia ul Haq, the former military ruler, and hanged two years later after a controversial trial in which he was charged with ordering the killing of a political foe.

However, Pakistan’s new rulers are quick to point out that they are neither vindictive men nor will history necessarily be repeated. Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar is aware of the comparisons between the past and the present. He is therefore quick to alleviate anxieties by explaining, “We have seen the hanging of a prime minister (Bhutto) and the possibility of that happening again horrifies people. But people are leaping to a conclusion prematurely.”

While nobody can prejudge the outcome of Sharif’s trial, Pakistan’s military regime faces challenges on at least three fronts.

First, Sharif’s trial may be the most crucial issue for the outside world, in view of international concerns for the future of Pakistani democracy. However, Musharraf’s actions with regards to Pakistan’s human-rights conditions are likely to determine his image both within the country and outside.

While his Oct. 12 coup was largely popular at the outset, concerns are mounting over the conditions in which some of the members of the former regime have been kept. On Dec. 14, Mushahid Hussain, a former Pakistani newspaper editor who served as the minister for information and broadcasting under Sharif, was taken away by the government from his house in Islamabad to an undisclosed location.

Hussain had been kept in “protective custody” by the military since the coup, which literally meant that he was effectively under house arrest. Dushka Hussain, his wife says; “This is not democracy, it’s the law of the jungle. Today it’s my husband, tomorrow it would be somebody else.”

There are at least two other ministers from the Sharif government, as well as Sharif’s son and son-in-law, who are being held in custody without charges. Such arrests make the new regime appear autocratic.

Second, Musharraf has often spoken of his concern over Pakistan’s worsening economic outlook. He has also outlined his vision for upcoming reforms. But managing Pakistan’s economy is as much a matter of initiating new policy as restructuring government to make it suitable for the country’s future.

For too long, Pakistan’s civil service has worked almost as if it is still operating within the confines of the British colonial legacy — even 52 years after independence. While the most sophisticated criminals have made a transition to state-of-the-art methods, the Pakistani police still often employ fairly rudimentary methodology and weapons.

At a time when civil services in many parts of the world are undergoing reform to enable them to deliver better services to the public, the performance of Pakistan’s civil service is declining, particularly as politicians increasingly use the police and government officials to promote political objectives. Can Musharraf improve the quality of Pakistan’s government? This is a vital issue for Pakistan’s future, and there are no easy answers.

Finally, Musharraf leads a country that is faced with difficult foreign-policy issues. Relations with neighboring India remain tense over Kashmir, Washington continues to urge Islamabad to accept international nuclear nonproliferation safeguards and the civil war in Afghanistan rages on.

In recent years, elected Pakistani governments have often shied away from taking tough positions on any of these foreign-policy issues, mainly due to concern of provoking a domestic backlash. Musharraf, however, has the advantage of leading a government that is not subjected to such domestic pressure.

If Musharraf can come across as more decisive than some of his predecessors on at least some of the challenges facing Pakistan, he is bound to receive external support and understanding. But time may not be on his side, for many of his fellow citizens are bound to run out of patience if things don’t improve in the not-too-distant future.

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