ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's imposition of Islamic law in a cease-fire deal to blunt a gathering Taliban rebellion will protect militants accused of brutal killings from prosecution, a hardline cleric who mediated the deal said Tuesday.
The assertion highlights the dilemma facing Pakistan's beleaguered government as it seeks to halt 18 months of bloodletting in the Swat Valley while convincing the U.S. and other foreign sponsors that it is not capitulating to allies of Al Qaeda.
President Asif Ali Zardari approved plans Monday to introduce Islamic law, or Sharia, in a large mountainous portion of the Northwest Frontier Province under mounting domestic pressure on his pro-Western government. Parts of the region, including Swat, are less than 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
Defenders of the deal argue it will drain public support for extremists who have hijacked long-standing calls in Swat for reform of Pakistan's snail-paced justice system.
But critics worry that it rewards hard-liners who have beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls in the name of Islam — and that it will encourage similar demands in other parts of the nuclear-armed country.
Militants in Swat declared a cease-fire in February after the provincial government agreed to introduce Islamic law in the surrounding Malakand division of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a largely conservative region which stretches north along the Afghan border for hundreds of miles.
The measure was part of a peace deal brokered by Sufi Muhammad, a white-bearded cleric who led tens of thousands to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but later renounced violence.
The terms of the agreement remain murky, fueling concern that it cedes effective control over the region to the private army of Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, the cleric's son-in-law. Officials have said radical groups allied with Al Qaeda have helped fight security forces in Swat.
Asked Tuesday in a television interview if the new courts would hear complaints from Swat residents about Fazlullah or his followers, Muhammad said they could not.
"We intend to bury the past," Muhammad told the ARY channel, sitting off-screen because he considers photographic or TV images to be against Islam. "Past things will be left behind and we will go for a new life in peace."
Asked if the Taliban would enjoy such immunity, a provincial government minister only pleaded for calm so that peace could take hold.
"Everyone should understand what we have gone through and what kind of hardship people in Swat have suffered," Wajid Ali Khan said. "We can look into any disputes and controversy at some later stage."
After weeks of foot-dragging, Zardari approved the Sharia regulation late Monday only after Parliament voted unanimously to adopt a resolution urging him to sign it.
His apparent reluctance has fueled doubts about whether the pact will hold. Few of the estimated 500,000 people displaced by the fighting have felt confident enough to return.
The resolution also diluted Zardari's personal responsibility for a pact that has drawn fierce criticism from rights groups as well as Pakistan's foreign backers, who are pumping billions of dollars into the country in hopes of stabilizing its pro-Western democracy.
Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said Tuesday that the pact was little more than a tactical maneuver in the country's "long war" with extremists.
"Those people who want to hijack Pakistan and destabilize Pakistan, they used (the demand for speedy justice) as a propaganda tool," Kaira said. "We have taken that idea out of the hand of the exploiters."
He insisted the Sharia legislation would not introduce a version of Islamic law like that introduced by the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
"It is a misconception that we are going to enforce Mullahism," he said.
A spokesman for the Taliban said the militants would cooperate. If the law is quickly implemented, "the world will see how much peace and prosperity comes to this region," Muslim Khan said.
Many observers, however, doubt their ambitions end there.
Taliban militants from Swat recently made a violent push into the neighboring Buner region, and Muhammad has repeatedly denounced Pakistan's democratic system as being against Islam — a view shared by the extremist groups blamed for the country's rising violence.
Muhammad said his followers would tour all districts of Malakand, including Buner, to "ensure peace."
He also said the courts would interpret civil rights according to Islamic strictures.
"Women will have full protection and rights under Sharia. They will live a better life — but behind the veil," he said.