Pakistani hardliners want to enforce harsher Islamic punishments

Leaders in an ultraconservative region of northwestern Pakistan have asked the federal government for the authority to impose harsh penalties allowed under Islam, from amputating the hands of thieves to stoning adulterers.

But they face a crucial obstacle: The government of Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a moderate whose policy is to embrace the international community, is unlikely to approve such measures.

"We have only power to award punishment like whipping to the criminals. But as far as amputation of hands and stoning to death are concerned, we will have to get approval," Zafar Azam, law minister in the government of North Western Frontier Province, said Tuesday.

Under traditional Islamic law, known as Shariah, authorities can sever thieves' right hands and also whip or stone those engaging in adultery.

Azam said his government wants to implement Islamic punishments as soon as possible. But, he said, "We will do it by avoiding any confrontation with the federal government." Provincial governments have some leeway in instituting laws, but are ultimately subordinate to the federal government.

Jamali's party, Quaid-e-Azam, said the prime minister wants to focus on eliminating poverty, rather than on passing draconian laws to deal with lawlessness.

"No government has the moral right to implement Islamic punishments without giving respect, safety, jobs and honor to its people," party spokesman Azeem Chaudhry said.

"How can you prevent people from committing crimes if they are jobless and their children are dying at home due to hunger?" he asked. "First give people what they want, then punish them if they commit any wrongs. This is what I feel is a real Islam."

Jamali came to power in November by defeating Fazl-ur Rahman, a religious leader who publicly supported Afghanistan's Taliban militia before and after the U.S.-led military operation to oust the hardline regime.

Since a religious coalition called Muthida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, swept to power in northwestern Pakistan, human rights groups have feared that radicals will try to impose a harsh brand of Islam in the heavily ethnic Pashtun province bordering Afghanistan.

Authorities in northwestern Pakistan began the new year by publicly burning over 5,000 videocassettes and compact discs in an ongoing anti-obscenity campaign. The burned materials included romantic movies that would not be considered pornographic in Western countries.

Azam said the province's Cabinet, in enacting such laws, is trying to provide quick justice to the people, eliminate obscenity and ensure rule of law.

"We hope the people would support us," he said, asserting that people are happier and feel safer in countries where Islamic law is enforced.

A number of Islamic countries have implemented Islamic punishments: Saudi Arabia in particular follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law that mandates amputation for theft cases.

Riaz Durrani, a senior leader of the religious coalition said any Islamic punishment implemented in the province would also apply to non-Muslims convicted of such crimes.

"Minorities have equal rights," he said. "They will be treated like all other Muslims."