Islamabad - The caretaker government on Monday flatly refused to initiate treason trial of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, telling the Supreme Court that it was beyond its mandate to take any ‘controversial’ step that is ‘irreversible’.

In a statement read out before a three-judge bench, the interim administration noted that less than three weeks were left to the elections, and overseeing the vote was a full-time job, given the threat level against candidates.

Expressing his resentment, bench head Justice Jawwad S Khawaja said: “The federation had taken no action in the past and today (April 22) it has been revealed that no legal action will be taken against the former Chief of Army Staff in future as well.”

The Supreme Court is hearing a petition from lawyers demanding that Musharraf face trial for treason for subverting and abrogating the constitution on Nov 3, 2007 when he imposed emergency. In Pakistan only the state can initiate charges of treason, which can carry the death penalty.

The caretaker government’s refusal will give at least temporary breathing room to Musharraf, who is already under house arrest in connection with one of three other cases being heard in lower courts that date back to his 1999-2008 period in office. He is serving his two-week arrest on judicial remand in his luxury villa in the upmarket suburb of Chak Shahzad on the edge of Islamabad. The arrest was ordered by Islamabad anti-terrorism court on Saturday for sacking and detaining judges November 2007.

Justice Khilji Arif Hussain said that despite the clear court orders the interior ministry has neither acted nor has any plan to take action against the former president. “We don’t understand what the federation is doing as it was determined not to prosecute General (r) Musharraf under Article 6 of the constitution.”

Deputy Attorney General Dil Muhammad Alizai, on behalf of the federation, submitted: “Considering, deliberating or commencing any legal proceedings pursuant to Article 6 of the constitution will be a measure not in the mandate of the caretaker government.” Reiterating its stance taken on April 17, the interim government cautioned there was “no urgency” to try Musharraf and said it needed “to confine their work to day-to-day routine matters” and “maintain the status quo” for the incoming elected government.

“The caretaker government should avoid taking any controversial step and should not commit any process that is not reversible by the incoming elected government,” statement said. Justice Khilji remarked that it was not for the first time that the government has dithered on initiating action against Musharraf; rather, the previous government also had been providing security to the accused.

Interior Ministry Joint Secretary Khushdil Khan told the bench that according to his research of the files at the ministry there was no file or noting in respect of action undertaken to lodge complaint under Article 6 of the constitution and High Treason (Punishment) Act 1973 or creating Special Court under Criminal Law (Amended) Special Courts Act 1976.

In the last hearing on April 17, Acting Law Secretary Sohail Qadeer Siddiqui had informed the court that the law ministry did not contain any documents pertaining to initiation of any process against Musharraf for subverting constitution. He, however, had stated that as per a notification dated 29-12-1994, the interior ministry was responsible taking action against a person accused of high treason under Article 6 of the constitution.

The court adjourned hearing the treason petition until Tuesday and ordered the authorities to allow Musharraf’s lawyers to meet him.

 At the outset of the hearing Musharraf’s counsels informed the court that jail authorities had barred them from meeting the retired general and prayed for directions in this regard. Meanwhile, PBC ex-vice chairman Ikram Chaudhry, on behalf of Abdul Hakeem Khan, filed an application praying that Musharraf should be immediately shifted to Adiala Jail like other prisoners.

The interim administration, which took office last month, is tasked with guiding the country of 180 million towards the May 11 vote, which will mark a historic democratic transition of power in a country used to periods of military rule. The administration will step down after the new elected government takes office and as a result it said it had no mandate to order a trial of Musharraf for treason.

Musharraf has been threatened with death by the Taliban and barred from running in next month’s general election, a humiliating blow to the retired general who returned home in March promising to ‘save’ Pakistan after four years of self-exile. He faces separate charges of conspiracy to murder opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and over the 2006 death of a Baloch rebel leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.