Floggings, stonings could begin in Pakistan's scenic Swat valley

MINGORA, Pakistan — A hundred miles northwest of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, the Swat valley offers a chilling vision of what much of the country could become.

Where tourists once frolicked, extremists are laying the groundwork for religious courts to dispense brutal punishments under their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The leader of the group, Sufi Mohammad, said penalties including flogging, chopping off hands and stoning to death must be available to Swat's Islamic courts.

Floggings are the proper punishment for sexual intercourse between unmarried people, drinking alcohol and slander, Mohammad said. Thieves should have their hands chopped off, except for poor people who steal to feed themselves. The punishment for adultery is death by stoning.

"These punishments are prescribed in Islam. No one can stop that. It is God's law," said Mohammad, sitting on the floor in his makeshift headquarters in Mingora, the regional capital. Mohammad, the head of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariaht-e-Mohammadi, or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, spoke in a rare interview with McClatchy.

An aide, Ameer Izzat, hurriedly added that tough criteria must be met for such sentences. For adultery, there must be four witnesses who saw the act of penetration, he said.

Swat, once known for its orchards and mountain streams, is the first region in mainstream Pakistan to be taken over by extremists. A leader of the Swat Taliban told McClatchy that Swat is a test case and the Taliban want Islamic law, or Shariah, introduced throughout the country.

Mohammad, who speaks softly and looks deceptively like a genial old uncle, with a flowing white beard and thick spectacles, reached his position when the Pakistani army capitulated in February after a two-year military assault on the former tourist destination by extremist Taliban.

In exchange for peace, the government agreed in talks with Mohammad to institute Shariah.

All that it takes to introduce the new system is for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to sign off on it. Zardari has hesitated, however, possibly under pressure from Western countries, which have been highly critical of the deal.

Mohammad said time was running out for Pakistan to implement the deal. He warned that if the promised new courts aren't fully operational soon, he'll abandon Swat. That would leave the area once more to the marauding Taliban, who announced a cease-fire in response to Mohammad's deal with the authorities.

"Our responsibility is to maintain the peace. When the demand (for Shariah) is met, the Taliban will put down their weapons. We will see to that. But if the government doesn't agree to implement the deal, we will just go," said Mohammad, speaking in Pashto, the regional language. "Then I don't know what will happen."

Mohammad has renounced violence and appears to have influence over the Swat chapter of the Taliban, which his son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, heads.

Despite the "peace deal," the Taliban are far from quiet. This week in Swat, they forcibly occupied the house of a member of parliament and overran an emerald mine. If Mohammad left, however, the Taliban almost certainly would start full-scale fighting again.

The government is gambling that Shariah will split the Islamists, bringing the "reconcilable" Taliban on board while isolating the hard-core. However, Mohammad is a former jihadist who led thousands of young Pakistani men into battle against the invading U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan after 9-11, and his loyalties are unclear.

"I would not say we're heading for normality, but this is the first peace we've had here for two years," said Khushhal Khan, a senior administration official in Mingora. "This place was a war zone."

The Taliban had banned girls' education in Swat and prohibited women from shopping. Since the peace deal, those schools are open again and shops have taken down signs that barred women, but residents have few illusions about who's won.

"Ninety percent of the people of Swat wanted the militants to be defeated by the Pakistan forces, just eliminated. But that was wishful thinking," said Zia-ud-Din Yusufzai, the headmaster of a private school in Mingora, who thinks, as many Swatis do, that the Pakistani army was unwilling to fight the Taliban.

"For us, a doubtful peace is far better than a doubtful war, where the parties were not known, their aims were not known," he said. "Swat has been assigned to the militants."

Masked Taliban gunmen are no longer on the streets of Mingora. Residents no longer wake up to find their neighbors hanging from poles in the squares of the city. The bazaar is bustling once more, though with few women. The atmosphere is edgy, however.

The Swat peace deal required the Taliban only to stop displaying their weapons, not to disarm or surrender. Some of the men in the Mingora market and elsewhere in Swat are bound to be Taliban, carrying hidden guns. They've just melted back into the population. Kidnapping for ransom is on the rise, and few people venture out after dark.

At Mingora's courts, there is chaos. The new Islamic judges are sitting but aren't yet authorized to hand down sentences, pending a presidential signature on the peace deal, and procedures haven't yet been worked out. Litigants mob the courts, shouting, jostling, pushing. There's little paperwork, and no lawyers are involved.

Aftab Alam, the president of the Swat lawyers association, said that the creaking colonial-era legal system needed to be speeded up, not replaced.

"They (the Taliban) want to establish a complete autonomous state. That's the real agenda," Alam said. "A utopian empire, a Taliban empire. Sometimes utopias become real."

The Swat Taliban are waiting on the sidelines. Their spokesman and key commander, Muslim Khan, said by telephone from an undisclosed location that his group would see to it that Shariah was implemented, "whether the government likes it or not, 100 percent."

Khan added: "Swat is a test case. After this, it (Shariah) should be brought in, in the whole of Pakistan. How can we have British law here? It is the task of the Taliban to make them agree. It is our right. Ninety-five percent of the population is Muslim."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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