Pakistan votes for Koran as the ultimate arbiter

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The Independent Online
PAKISTAN'S LOWER house of parliament passed a sweeping measure yesterday that introduces Sharia law as the new legal system, but it still has to be ratified by the Senate.

The parliamentary move was the culmination of a tumultuous week during which three of the country's most senior army generals resigned.

The Cabinet decided on Thursday to put the so-called Shariat Bill, Constitutional Amendment Number 15, before parliament without delay after some of its most drastic provisions had been removed.

Mr Nawaz Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League enjoys a huge majority in the lower house and the amendment was passed by a majority of 61, comfortably above the two-thirds majority required.

The Prime Minister now has 90 days in which to get the bill through the Senate, where his majority is too small to guarantee the required two- thirds margin. If thwarted there, he could present it to a joint session of both houses for final approval.

The passing of this law does not necessarily mean punishments such as floggings and amputations will soon become commonplace in Pakistan. When Shariat law was previously in the ascendant in Pakistan, during the dictatorship of Zia al-Haq, the nation showed that it had little stomach for such barbarities.

Never the less, neither religious minorities nor human rights can depend any longer on the protection of the the Constitution, which Shariat law now overrides. Instead, with the excuse of "Islamisation", the power of the prime minister to impose his will on the judiciary is hugely enhanced.

"The passing of the Constitutional Amendment means a complete free-for- all," the prominent human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir told The Independent. "Judges can make up their own minds what laws will be upheld, what rights of people ought to be upheld and what sort of punishments should be meted out. It means the complete collapse of law and of the legal system. No longer will there be any guarantee of fundamental rights."

The new law vests the authority to enforce Shariat with Mr Sharif's government, bringing even the judges within the prime minister's scope. The fifth article of the amendment declares that it can override anything in the Constitution. If Mr Sharif aims for dictatorship, once the law is passed it will be within his legal discretion.

Presenting the bill in parliament, Mr Sharif insisted that the nation's minorities and women would not be disadvantaged by it, but a clause that was to guarantee minorities that their "personal law, religious freedom, traditions or customs ... and status as citizens" would be protected had been excised from the bill.

On Thursday, after the resignation of the Army chief, General Jehangir Karamat on the previous day, his immediate subordinate, General Ali Quli Khan, and another senior officer, General Khalid Nawaz, also resigned. Mr Sharif now has the supposedly pliable General Pervais Mushareff as Army Chief.

General Mushareff's reliability cannot be guaranteed, however; the Pakistan Army has a strong tradition of consensual leadership, and General Mushareff will be under intense pressure from his 11 or 12 fellow generals to reflect their concerns.

With a report yesterday that the military's reserve budget is almost exhausted, and that without additional funding in the next three months the Army could be grounded, the prime minister's honeymoon with his new chief could be short-lived.