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Legal Ambiguity in Pakistan Emboldens Militants, Worries Lawmakers


The Pakistani government's recent approval of Islamic courts in parts of the country's northwest was aimed at bringing peace to a region that had long suffered from clashes between Taliban fighters and the military. But the agreement's legal ambiguity has emboldened militants and confirmed the fears of critics who said it would undermine the government's authority.

When Pakistan's national assembly overwhelmingly voted in support of the plan to implement Islamic courts in the northwest Malakand region, lawmakers said the courts were already sanctioned under the country's constitution and would pacify militants.

Just one week later, those assumptions are in doubt.

Taliban fighters in the region have not put down their weapons. Armed militants have spread into nearby areas and the mediator of the agreement is now denouncing lawmakers and judicial officials as infidels.

Cleric Sufi Muhammad told thousands of supporters Sunday in Swat that Pakistan's democratic institutions are un-Islamic.

He says government officials and religious leaders are supporting this system of the infidels and all of their actions are against Islam. He says their living and death is that of the non-believers.

Sufi Mohammad's speech has been roundly criticized by lawmakers, including hard-line religious parties generally sympathetic to the Taliban. Farooq Sattar, a lawmaker from a minority political party that has been critical of the courts agreement, says the remarks should convince lawmakers to revisit the deal.

"They have opened allegations on the parliament that this is an un-Islamic parliament, the assemblies are un-Islamic, the judiciaries and the judicial system are un-Islamic," said Sattar. "I think it is high time that all religious and political parties must rise above the occasion, and they must now speak out."

Analysts say the government's decision to sanction Islamic courts in the Swat valley and other areas of the Malakand region has led to a crisis of judicial and government authority.

A constitutional law expert in Karachi, Zain Sheikh, says under Pakistan's constitution there is a judicial procedure for ensuring all laws are in accordance with the Koran. But he says the new Islamic court judges, known as qazis, have unprecedented legal authority that lies outside this framework

"Each qazi will decide the case as he wants to in his interpretation of the Koran," said Sheikh. "The bottom line is that unless parliament reviews these regulations and drastically changes them, this is the beginning of a parallel system of justice in Pakistan."

Zain Sheikh worries the courts could have what he called a "snowball effect" with Taliban-influenced Islamic courts undermining government authority in other regions.

The back and forth negotiations over the Malakand courts deal appear to be nearing yet another standoff, with lawmakers urging the government to contain the militants and rein in courts that lie outside the judicial system. Taliban groups and their supporters are vowing to expand the courts system to enforce Islamic law across Pakistan.


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