Pakistan may get anti-vice department

Peshawar, Pakistan - Lawmakers from an Islamic coalition ruling Pakistan's deeply conservative northwest on Monday approved a law to set up a Taliban-style department to suppress vice.

The law establishes a unit led by an Islamic cleric to promote virtue and eliminate vice, with a separate police force to implement its orders. According to the legislation, the department would help fight government corruption, eliminate child labor and ensure rights for women and religious minorities.

The province's governor must sign the law, and it was not immediately clear when the legal procedure would be completed.

The assembly passed the same bill last year despite the opposition of the central government. But the provincial governor had refused to sign it into law, objecting that it aimed to set up a parallel police system.

The Supreme Court subsequently proposed amendments, and on Monday provincial Law Minister Malik Zafar Azam reintroduced the amended bill for debate.

Sixty-six members from the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal or United Action Forum coalition ruling the North West Frontier Province voted for the Hisbah, or Accountability Law, while about 30 opposition members abstained.

"Dictatorship by clerics is not acceptable," chanted female opposition lawmaker Begum Nighat Yasmin Aurakzai, denouncing the measure.

Provincial Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani hailed the new law.

"We had promised an Islamic system to the nation and approval of the Hisbah Bill is an important step in that direction," Durrani said in the assembly after the bill was passed. Lawmakers from his ruling alliance chanted, "God is great."

The proposed accountability department recalls the feared Vice and Virtue police of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, which barred women and girls from school and work, and banned nearly all forms of entertainment under its strict interpretation of Islamic laws.

The Taliban police would beat women if they ventured out of their homes uncovered and publicly punished men for not offering prayers or growing beards.

The cleric leading the proposed department in Pakistan would be supervised by a six-member council comprising two other clerics, two lawyers and two government officials.

The hard-line Islamic coalition that rules the province gained power in parliamentary elections in 2002 mainly on a platform of opposition to the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban.

While life in the conservative province hasn't changed markedly under the coalition's rule, its government has taken some measures toward implementing Islamic law. It has banned music on public buses, prohibited male doctors from treating female patients, and restricted men from watching or coaching female athletes - acts it deems against Islam.

An opposition lawmaker rejected the new law, saying it promoted the draconian stance of the Taliban regime.

"This bill will encourage steps for the Talibanization of the province," said Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani, a lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.