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Pakistan accepts Islamic law in Swat Valley

Militants signed a cease-fire with provincial authorities Monday after they agreed to impose sharia.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 2009

DEAL: Delegates of Islamist leader Sufi Mohammad met with Pakistani authorities in Peshawar Monday to discuss introducing sharia law in Swat and neighboring areas.

Ali Imam/Reuters

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Peshawar, Pakistan

In its latest effort to stem the spread of Taliban militancy, Pakistan is expanding the rule of Islamic law.

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In a deal announced Monday, the government agreed to a suite of legal reforms, including the establishment of a religious court of appeals serving only the tribal region of Malakand. The area includes the Swat Valley, a strategic corridor first infiltrated in 2007 by Taliban militants and the scene of an Army counteroffensive. On the eve of the agreement, the Taliban operating in Swat announced a cease-fire with government troops.

Previous Pakistani truces have faced US criticism for merely giving militants space and time to rearm. This latest deal raises the added concern that the government is trading away secular traditions and taking a step toward Islamic law, or sharia.

However, political leaders and analysts here agree that this religious court system would not invoke some of the most draconian punishments often associated with sharia. And it is widely seen as a popular move to restore the efficient rule of law in a country where the secular court system often takes years to resolve cases.

"We are optimistic that this situation imposed on Malakand region will bring peace," says Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial assembly member for Swat. "It's not the demand of the Taliban, it's the demand of the people of the Malakand region."

Easing a bottleneck in the courts

Elements of the religious judicial system, called nizam-e-adl, have been in place in the region since 1994. While cases could be decided more quickly in these religious courts, they often could be bogged down by appeals to the secular court system.

Such an appeal could take more than a decade, driving legal fees beyond the means of many Pakistanis, meaning that justice delayed would often mean justice denied.

"If you see such economic and social injustice, then naturally your mind goes to Islamic justice," says Shah Farman, the provincial general secretary of the Tehreek e-Insaf, or party of justice. "People are looking for speedy and cheap justice."

The lack of an efficient justice system sparked political protests starting in the 1990s by Sufi Muhammad, the father-in-law of the current Taliban leader in Swat Valley, Maulana Fazlullah. Monday's deal was struck between the provincial government and Mr. Muhammad, with the blessing of Pakistan's federal government and military.

The deal sets time limits for trials: six months for civil cases, four months for criminal cases. And the new religious appellate court would remove the need for local cases to be appealed into the secular court system.

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