Taliban Gone, Pakistan Area Still Wants Islamic Justice

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Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

A man sits in the halls of the district court in the Swat valley region, located in Pakistan's restive North West Frontier Province, March 19, 2010.

The U.S. and many of its allies, as well as a large number of Pakistanis, professed alarm in February 2009 when Pakistan's government ceded control of the judiciary in a strategic border region to the Taliban. But the locals appeared to be very happy. Television footage showed grinning men distributing sweets to celebrate the implementation of Nizam-e-Adl, the legal system based on Islamic Shari'a law. It had been a local demand that predated the Taliban's ascendency in the breathtakingly beautiful Swat Valley and its surrounding villages in the North-West Frontier Province. But the mood in the tribal territory once known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan" soon soured.

That's because Taliban justice often meant merciless public floggings for seemingly innocuous "transgressions," brutal beheadings, and corpses hanging for days in the main public squares of Swat's capital, Mingora, 80 miles north of Islamabad. That's not what the people of Swat believe is proper Shari'a practice at all. "The Taliban had their Nizam-e-Adl, and then there is the real Nizam-e-Adl," says Siraj Khan, a tribal elder from the former Taliban stronghold of Bara Bandai, some six miles from Mingora. "None of them were religious scholars, they weren't even educated. The real Islam is a good religion."

The Pakistani military then expelled the Taliban in a fierce military offensive last summer. That meant the restoration of the writ of the central government, including its judicial system. But many locals and lawyers, while happy to see the back of the Taliban, still want to reinstate proper Nizam-e-Adl. Says Siraj Khan: "We want the quick justice given by Nizam-e-Adl."

Quick is the operative word. It's not that what has been reinstated is un-Islamic: the country's constitution requires that all laws be consistent with Islam; and the Penal Code includes a number of Shari'a principles. But the central government's legal system, a mishmash of century-old British procedural law and Islamic principles, is slow-moving, expensive and corrupt. As one local puts it, even a small legal matter can drag through the courts for years: "You would die and your son would have to follow it up," he says.

Islamic justice has long been a demand of the people of the region, nostalgic for a time when judicial decisions supposedly came down fast. Before Swat became part of Pakistan in 1969, the area was a princely state ruled by a wali and governed by quick, inexpensive customary law, or rivaj, which was more or less like Shari'a. The introduction of the Pakistani common law was an unwelcome development, leading to popular discontent. In 1994, the Islamist militant Sufi Mohammad, sensing the growing anti-establishment sentiment in Swat, called for the imposition of Shari'a, a rallying cry widely backed in the district. Various governments in Islamabad promised but never truly delivered on the carving out of a Shari'a law enclave in Swat.

But why must Swat's judicial system be different from that used in the rest of Pakistan? Abdul Ghafoor, president of the Swat District Bar Association, says an exception has to be made in Swat for the sake of security. "At the moment the people are waiting for this Nizam-e-Adl," he says. "If this result is not satisfactory, then there is a possibility that those people, the Taliban, will come again. This is for sure." Justice Javed Nawaz Gandapur, a former judge in the Peshawar High Court, says that in the same way that the various U.S. states have their own laws, the people of Swat should be allowed their own system. "It's a matter of convenience," he says. "Swat traditionally had its own judicial system. It wasn't very complicated and it was easy for people to get their disputes settled. Our procedural system is absolutely rotten with its long delays."

The concern is that the longer it takes for the wheels of justice to turn, the more likely it is that the people of Swat will look for alternatives, delivered by either the Taliban or the anti-Taliban neighborhood militias known as lashkars. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in its annual report released last month that lashkars in Swat and other areas in the northwest were engaging in extra-judicial killings, sometimes at the behest of the military, and that dozens of bodies have been dumped in mass graves across the Malakand area that encompasses Swat. Other corpses, it said, were hung upside down "with notes attached to the bodies warning that anyone supporting the Taliban will meet the same fate."

Half a dozen lashkar leaders from across Malakand were interviewed by TIME and all vigorously denied the allegations, claiming that any insurgent deaths occurred in self-defense. The military has also denied the claims. "Why should I carry out extra-judicial killings?" says Lieutenant Colonel Akhtar Abbas, military spokesman in Swat. "Yes, the people of Swat desired it, they wanted to see these people hang, but there is a judiciary doing its job."

The problem is, it's not moving fast enough for many, especially the families of suspected militants. Thousands are being held in indefinite detention, according to military and legal officials as well as Pakistani press reports. There are between "two to three thousand defendants," according to Ghafoor of the Swat bar association. It's a factor that can play in the Taliban's favor. Commissioner Fazal Karim Khattak, the administrative head of the provincial government in Swat and seven other nearby districts, acknowledges that the current judicial system is "not really appealing to the people" and that the promise of speedy Shari'a justice had been "the most attractive slogan for the people of Swat and [advocating it] helped the initiation of the [Taliban] movement."

The discontent stirred by the untried alleged militants may be a potential time bomb, but Lieut. Col. Abbas defends the delays in prosecuting them. "It is a matter of life and death," he says, "so it has to be slow." The government points out that it has appointed 16 new judges for the district, opened new courts and in less than a year, reduced the backlog of cases from 18,000 to about 5,000. It wants new criminal cases processed within four months and civil ones in six. It has also pledged to create a circuit bench of the High Court in Mingora so that petitioners no longer need to travel to Peshawar, some 200 miles away by road.

But all that may not be enough for many who simply don't want Pakistani common law in the district. The Swat District Bar Association has threatened to launch a protest campaign until the government fully honors its commitment to impose Nizam-e-Adl. "They should fulfill this promise now," says Ghafoor.