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Representatives of the government and leaders of a powerful militant political group have agreed to introduce changes in the local judicial system in the Swat region of Pakistan to make it more "Islamic" and hopefully quell mounting violence.
As part of the deal the militants and the army have also agreed to a 10-day cease-fire.
Though it's been signed by government representatives, the deal is not legal until the president signs it, meaning all eyes are on him now.
Swat is the only place outside of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where the Pakistani Taliban have established a stronghold. It's an inland tourist mountain resort, a few hours drive north from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. In 2004 militant groups in Swat began supporting the Taliban on the western border in their fight against the American and Pakistan army.
Swat's history is similar to the tribal areas in some ways. The area was also once an autonomous region like the tribal areas, with their independent judicial and political systems. But in 1969 the region joined Pakistan as regular territory.
Part of what the Swati people lost with joining Pakistan were their local judicial system of "qazi" courts, which closely followed Islamic law. And the British styled Pakistani judicial system has never completely establish itself in the region. Swat has had periodic uprisings through the decades to restore the old order and through the 90's there were similar deals between the government and armed political groups to restore the old law.
The most recent cease-fire is seen by some as a tactical move by the government to simmer down fighting as legislative elections approach in about two weeks and a street protest movement against the government is planned for mid-March. Some others say that the government is bowing to pressure from militants. Regardless, the move is likely to be supported by many Pakistanis and the government might win some much needed points for restoring peace — if this really does lead to peace.
A government official has said there is nothing "unconstitutional" about the deal.
You don't have to go digging into the Pakistani Constitution to find out what it says about Islamic law. This is how the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan begins:
"Whereas sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust;
And whereas it is the will of the people of Pakistan to establish an order :-
Wherein the State shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people;
Wherein the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed;
Wherein the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah."
Article 227 of the constitution reads:
"(1) All existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah, in this Part referred to as the Injunctions of Islam, and no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such Injunctions."
The text of the agreement signed today has not been released, but there's a good chance it will not stray very far from these constitutional guidelines. The question is: who will decide what is Islamic and what is not? The government or the Taliban?
For the people of this region, the most important news is that the fighting and killing might stop now, at least for a little while. But it is a precarious cease-fire. The army says it isn't drawing back yet, but it won't fire unless it's fired upon.