The Afghan government plans to establish a new Vice and Virtues Ministry, but it won't resemble the Taliban version that became a symbol of the toppled regime's hard-line, brutal regime, the president's spokesman said Tuesday.

However, Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying the plan to re-establish the office "raises serious concerns about potential abuse of the rights of women and vulnerable groups."

Karim Rahimi, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, told reporters that Afghans should not be worried by the re-establishment of the ministry.

CountryWatch: Afghanistan

"The people were scared of the Vice and Virtues Ministry under the Taliban, but this new ministry won't be like the Taliban's," Rahimi said. "It will take into consideration moral and religious activities to help improve Afghan society."

Rahimi said Karzai has discussed plans to revive the department with religious and tribal leaders, and has passed it to the Ministry for Hajj and Religious Affairs for further review and eventual ratification.

Human Rights Watch said the religious affairs minister, Nayiamatullah Shahrani, might oversee the new office, concentrating on alcohol, drugs, crime and corruption. Criminal laws in deeply conservative Afghanistan already deal with such matters, the group said.

"Afghan women and girls face increasing insecurity, and it's more important for the government to address how to improve their access to public life rather than limit it further," said Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Reinstatement of this controversial department risks moving the discussion away from the vital security and human rights problems now engulfing the country."

Until the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, the Vice and Virtues Ministry enforced measures with public beatings and imprisonment.

Misdemeanors by women deemed fit for punishment included wearing socks not sufficiently opaque, showing wrists, hands, or ankles, and not being accompanied by a close male relative. The measures prevented women from educating girls in home-based schools, working, and begging.

Ministry officials also beat men for trimming their beards, and paraded people found with video recorders around their neighborhoods with charcoal-blackened faces or with cassette tape wrapped around their heads.