Pakistan Approves Strict Law In Swat Valley

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In what looks like a concession to the Taliban, Pakistan's president has signed a controversial measure that makes Islamic law the official legal system in the restive Swat Valley.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we turn to India's neighbor, Pakistan. In what looks like a concession to the Taliban, Pakistan's president has signed a controversial measure that makes Islamic law the official legal system in the rest of Swat Valley. The mountainous area in the northern part of the country used to be a prime tourist destination. Now, it's a stronghold for militants. Washington and its Western allies worry that the deal could make Swat Valley more of a haven for extremists than it has already become. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us on the line from Islamabad. Hello, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Hi, there.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's talk about why the Pakistan government signed this deal.

MCCARTHY: Well, President Asif Ali Zardari is under a lot of pressure, both externally and internally, to come up with a strategy to combat the rise of the Taliban here in Pakistan. He's delayed for weeks signing this deal, but he couldn't delay anymore. The local militants were threatening to inflict more violence. And it's a calculation that the enforcement of this regulation, Sharia law, will avoid more bloodshed in the Swat Valley, where militants have already beheaded opponents and burned girls' schools.

Now, human rights groups see this as the government surrendering to extremist views that repress women and mete out harsh punishments. And the United States is also wary, seeing this as a gambit for the Taliban to gain legitimacy.

MONTAGNE: Well, what, then, does this agreement mean as far as the legal system goes, and as far as what people can expect there in Swat in the way of justice?

MCCARTHY: Well, this would implement a new legal system. And the laws under Pakistan's civil and criminal system would cease to have effect, and they'd be replaced by the Islamic legal system. And that means judges are going to decide on the basis of the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Now, one of the district coordinators up in the region affected told me this morning, it means that a once-dysfunctional judicial system will now be functional; that's his point of view.

The big complaint is slow justice. Now, all criminal cases have to be decided in four months, all civil cases in six months. And he, for one, is skeptical about the doom-and-gloom scenarios, about flogging, and he even questions the veracity of that recent video that - that caused a furor - that showed the teenage girl being flogged. Then you have this whole other body of opinion that believes that this is really tantamount to the Talibanization of Swat, a territorial concession.

And this school says look, you know, the ruling politicians there didn't advocate Islamization when they were elected and that, you know, this is only the prerogative of militants who are being assuaged by this deal.

MONTAGNE: Well, Julie, what's the evidence that the militants are expanding their reach?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, already you have the Taliban pushing into a place just outside Islamabad, known as Bunir, population half a million. And it's seen a recent influx of heavily armed men who reportedly came over the border from Swat. And they didn't meet much resistance and among other things, they took over a shrine, locked it up, called it un-Islamic. They're reported to have occupied the houses of some town elders. They are behaving, according to the analysts, as if they have the upper hand, and they're testing it.

Now, since the deal was signed last night, they have retreated from Bunir. But few expect that that retreat is going to be very long-lasting.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, how is this agreement between Pakistan and the Taliban expected to affect U.S.-Pakistan relations?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, the Obama administration is looking to tie its aid package to Pakistan to progress made here on the fight against militancy. What has happened here in the past 24 hours is that President Zardari and his government have got a little cover because the parliament came along and overwhelmingly urged the president to sign this deal yesterday. So he could say to Washington, look, it's not just me. The nation believed this was the best course to avert further public upheavals.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy, reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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