Pakistan restores Islamic law to pacify Swat valley
PESHAWAR, Pakistan |
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan agreed to introduce Islamic law in Swat valley and neighboring areas of the northwest on Monday in a bid to take the steam out of a Taliban uprising raging since late 2007.
The move is likely to draw criticism from the United States and other Western powers fearful that Pakistan is playing into the hands of religious conservatives who sympathize with the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The agreement was reached at talks between Islamists and officials of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government in Peshawar on Monday.
Taliban militants in Swat, once a tourist paradise, called a 10-day ceasefire the night before the talks, and on Saturday released a Chinese engineer kidnapped five months earlier as a gesture of goodwill.
Announcing the decision to bring back Islamic law, a spokesman for NWFP said President Asif Ali Zardari had already agreed in principle to this concession to religious conservatives of the region.
"After successful negotiations ... all un-Islamic laws related to the judicial system, those against the Koran and Sunnah, would be subject to cancellation and considered null and void," said NWFP's Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, referring to the holy book of Islam and the saying and teachings of the Prophet Mohammad.
An uprising erupted in late 2007 in Swat, an alpine beauty spot favored by honeymooners and trekkers alike, and militants now control the valley just 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad.
They have destroyed more than 200 girls schools in a campaign against female education, and tens of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape the violence.
Religious conservatives in Swat have long fought for sharia to replace Pakistan's secular laws, which came into force after the former princely state was absorbed into the Pakistani federation in 1969.
FRAMEWORK IN PLACE
Hussain said the framework for the Islamic laws was in place and from hereon cases would be heard and decided in accordance with Islamic injunctions in Malakand division, which includes Swat, and Kohistan and Hazara districts of NWFP.
But NWFP's Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti said there would be no new courts set up, and the presiding judge would not have to be an Islamic scholar as in times gone by.
Hoti told a news conference that the decision had been taken in consultation with the political and religious leadership of the province, and denied that the government had caved in to militants.
"This is not under any pressure. There was a movement, militant movement in Swat but not in the entire Malakand Division," Hoti said.
The government hopes that it will be able to drive a wedge between conservative hardliners and those militants who have fallen under the thrall of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The agreement was reached with Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a radical cleric who led a revolt in Swat in the 1990s to restore sharia, or strict Islamic law.
Mohammad was arrested after leading thousands of followers to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S.-backed forces in late 2001.
Pakistani authorities released him last year in a bid to defuse another uprising, this time led by his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.
Some analysts doubt whether Mohammad, who has given up militancy, has much influence over Fazlullah, who has forged ties with other Pakistani Taliban factions and al Qaeda.
(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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