A religious charity in Pakistan that the United States has designated as a “foreign terrorist” organization has confirmed it is running a special tribunal in the city of Lahore, where disputes between rival parties are settled according to Islamic law, or Sharia.
Local media say the controversial charity known as Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) has established the Islamic court, separate from the regular judiciary, at its headquarters in the capital of the country’s most populous province - Punjab.
“The court has been taking up complaints of citizens approaching it for justice and summoning the ‘defendants’ in person or through a legal counsel with warnings of strict action under the Sharia laws in case of no response,” the Dawn newspaper said in a report published Thursday.
The emergence of this JuD-linked court raises questions about Pakistan's counter extremism efforts and attempts to rein in radical Islamist groups operating in the country.
But a JuD spokesman, Yahya Mujahid, has denied allegations it has established a parallel judiciary, describing the tribunal as an "Arbitrary Council." He went on to explain the councils do not issue any kind of summons or seek money for arbitration.
“The arbitrary council established by the JuD, presided over by the Ulema [religious scholars], merely provides arbitration services to consenting parties in light of the Quran and Sunnah [sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammad],” Mujahid told VOA.
Unusual in Pakistan cities
The emergence of such a court is rare in urban Pakistan. The practice of dispensation of justice through such panels until now was confined to the semi-autonomous volatile tribal belt near the Afghan border, which is beyond the jurisdiction of regular Pakistani laws.
The controversial Sharia courts were the hallmark of the five-year Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, where Islamist scholars would conduct summary trials.
Mujahid defended the JuD court, saying it is functioning according to the traditional Panchayat system in parts of Punjab, where village elders settle disputes according to prevailing cultural norms.
The only difference, he says, is that the arbitration council is strictly abiding by Islamic law.
The spokesman revealed a similar council also has been functioning in Karachi, the commercial hub of Pakistan.
The JuD, according to United Nations and U.S. officials, is a front for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is suspected of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed 166 people.
India accuses LeT of being behind terror attacks in the India-ruled portion of the divided Kashmir region.
JuD describes itself as a humanitarian group rendering welfare services in addition to running charitable Islamist seminaries or madrasas and hospitals in calamity-hit regions of Pakistan.
In 2012, the United States offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of JuD chief Hafiz Saeed, who founded LeT and led it until Pakistan banned the group under international pressure.