Taliban moves to impose sharia law on foreign aid workers

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The Independent Online

The Taliban are considering new rules that would force foreigners seeking an Afghan visa to commit themselves to a list of pledges, including bans on drinking alcohol, meeting Afghan women and playing musical instruments.

Foreigners would be asked to sign a letter placing themselves under the jurisdiction of the religious police. "Causing general chaos by being suspected of spying'' would become a crime, as would not "fully respecting the national and cultural values of the Afghan people". Anyone signing the letter of commitments would also agree in advance to being punished for infringing the code.

The punishment for most of the crimes is deportation or a prison sentence, but anyone found guilty of committing adultery with an Afghan or non-Afghan woman could be given an Islamic sharia punishment ­ usually death by stoning for married people and lashes for the unmarried.

The Taliban's religious police are the most feared part of the movement's security services, with the power to detain Afghans and carry out corporal punishment without trial.

Eric de Mul, UN co-ordinator for Afghanistan, said recently: "They act on anony­ mous tip-offs and then make arrests and raid premises without first checking the accusations.'' The UN declined to comment on the proposed letter of commitments, saying nothing had been received officially yet.

However, the UN is already unhappy with security and has threatened to close down programmes if staff are not given greater protection from the religious police and foreign militants who are in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban Islamic militia. They routinely make death threats against foreign aid workers, and spit at and verbally abuse women.

If the Taliban go ahead with the new rules, aid agencies in Afghanistan will face a dilemma. "We have to protect our workers,'' said the director of one agency, "but then, what are the ethics of pulling out staff when we know that will mean some needy Afghans dying?"

Up to twelve million Afghans have been hit by a severe drought. With the ongoing civil war, the UN says it is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Some aid workers believe that some within Taliban want to engineer a complete withdrawal of foreigners from Afghanistan, thereby creating a "pure" Islamic state.

Afghanistan is already one of the most restrictive countries to work in. Foreign women have to wear headscarves and ultra-modest clothing that covers ankles and forearms. They have also recently been banned from driving. However, until now, the Taliban have largely respected foreigners' privacy. If they wanted to carry out illegal activities like watching television or playing music in their own homes, that was their business.

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