The Return of Afghanistan's Vice Squad?

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Under the Taliban, officials from the Department for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue struck fear into women's hearts, beating those who let a glimpse of wrist or ankle peek out from beneath their burqas. The hated religious police were disbanded when the hard-line Islamic regime fell in 2001. But President Hamid Karzai is planning to resurrect them, much to the alarm of human rights groups, parliamentarians and Western diplomats.

During the Taliban's reign, the religious police would beat women who were seen on the street without a male relative — an impossible demand to meet for the millions of women widowed by the civil war — and would thrash men who did not pray five times a day or keep their beard at the proper length. Afghan officials have said the new department — which was approved by the cabinet last month and is pending approval by parliament — would be a kinder, softer version of its Taliban predecessor and would not enforce such harsh penalties for moral transgressions. Instead, the organization would mirror those in other Islamic countries that aim to "promote morality in society," Presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi said.

However, many fear it could open the door for conservative clerics to abuse women and ethnic minorities and to quash free speech using loose definitions of virtue. Hard-liner clerics have been flexing their muscles in recent months. In March, an Afghan man charged with converting from Islam to Christianity was forced to flee the country after he faced a possible death penalty in the Afghan court system. Sam Zia Zarifi, director of research of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, warns that the new vice and virtue cops could be "an instrument for politically oppressing critical voices and vulnerable groups under the guise of protecting poorly defined ideas of virtue." Zarifi said this would be especially true of women, who often find their basic human rights infringed in Afghanistan under the cover of morality.

Indeed, it remains murky what the department's powers would be, and where the money would come from to fund its workings. Nematullah Shahrani, the minister of Haj and Religious offices, has said it would focus on alcohol, drugs, crime and corruption, but those issues are already addressed by the country's criminal laws.

Many in the country's fledgling parliament are also up in arms and say President Karzai has resurrected the department to placate conservative mujahedin warlords and fundamentalist clerics. With a violent insurgency in the south and riots in Kabul highlighting the government's unpopularity, Karzai is seeking to shore up his support base by courting conservative Islamists. Most girls' schools have already closed in the south and southeast under spiraling threats, and groups like Human Rights Watch are concerned that policing public morals could divert attention from the bigger battle to stem unrest in the volatile southern provinces.

Shukria Barakzai, a Member of Parliament and analyst, said the new department is a "symbol of the past" and worries that even if it is staffed by competent people, it would be difficult to monitor in coming years. "The president could appoint people who are good today, but what about tomorrow?" she said. "It could be the same as the Taliban, and allow people to deliver violence against women, against freedom of speech."