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Page last updated at 07:15 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 08:15 UK

Doubts remain as Sharia bill signed

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Rally in Mingora
A mass rally in Swat last Friday demanded the president sign the bill

After months of wavering, the Pakistani government has finally approved a law that will enforce the Sharia justice system in its troubled north-western district of Swat.

But the contours of that law are still not clear, sparking fears that differences over the details may yet again derail peace in this once popular tourist resort.

The government seems to think that as the Taleban's demand of Sharia law has been met, the militants will lay down their arms and go home.

The Taleban, on the contrary, seem to believe that they have a peace time job of guiding society along the "right path", if not to conquer new frontiers.

Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the local cleric who helped negotiate peace between the government and the militants, apparently has little leverage with either party and has kept his own understanding of what form the law should take largely to himself.

Call to disarm

Many in Pakistan and in the West are generally sceptical about the Taleban's intentions of respecting human rights.

Sufi Mohammad's supporters
Sufi Mohammad and his supporters were angry at the president's delay

Moreover, these circles believe the Taleban have negotiated peace from a position of strength, and would be reluctant to give up their military advantage in the area.

Since the middle of 2007, the militants have gradually consolidated their hold over Swat, located in the northern parts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

An on-off military operation ordered in the autumn of 2007 stumbled to a halt in February 2009 after conceding nearly the entire district to the militants.

The fighting was brought to an end when Sufi Mohammad agreed to negotiate peace.

In line with that agreement, the ruling party in NWFP, the Awami National Party (ANP), drafted a law to enforce the Islamic justice system in Swat, and sent the draft to President Asif Ali Zardari for final approval.

But the president sat on it for nearly two months, saying the bill would be signed once "the writ of the government has been established" in Swat. That is still not the case.

Tribal areas map

Now the bill is signed, Sufi Mohammad has called on the militants to lay down their arms.

The head of the interior ministry, Rehman Malik, also expressed "hope that the Taleban would disarm".

A senior ANP leader, Senator Haji Adeel, said if the Taleban wanted to continue to influence public life in Swat, they should organise themselves into a political party.

"Dictating how people should live their lives by holding a gun to their heads is not the right course," he said.

But those who oppose the deal say this is easier said than done.

Over the past few months, the militants have established their organisational chapters in all the sub-districts of Swat, complete with Islamic courts to settle criminal and civil disputes and also to punish lax morality.

Since the ceasefire in February, they have also prevented the army from establishing positions anywhere except at their designated garrisons and camps.

But they have so far refused to submit to any curbs on their own movement, as was evident last week when they raided the nearby district of Buner, occupied a police station and locked up a popular local shrine.

The opponents of the peace deal say this does not augur well for a job that remains unfinished.

Timeframe

Minister for Religious Affairs Hamid Saeed Kazmi pointed out in a press conference on Tuesday that matters concerning the qualification of judges, the mechanism of their appointment and legal procedures for a proper court trial were yet to be settled.

Sharia court in Swat
Many in Swat have welcomed the new Sharia courts

The NWFP government has indicated that selection and appointment of judges will remain its prerogative, but the militants have been seeking a role for themselves as well as Sufi Mohammad in this.

Questions about a timeframe for the exit of the army from Swat, and the role of the police and local administration, also remain largely unexplained.

The ANP-led government decided to negotiate peace with the Taleban because its top leaders were convinced the army did not want to evict them from Swat.

They are confident that after the introduction of Sharia, the Taleban will be under growing pressure from the people as well as leaders like Sufi Mohammad to back off.

Aftab Sherpao, a former chief minister of NWFP who first introduced Islamic courts in Swat in 1994, says success will take time.

"It will take a year for things in Swat to get back to normal," he told the media on Tuesday.

How the year unfolds will become clear over the next few weeks.



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