Authorities recently proposed greatly expanding the powers of already-existing Shari'a courts in the provincially administered areas of Swat and its adjacent districts of Dir, Chitral, and Kohistan.
Activists say the proposal is a bid to appease militants, who are locked in a battle with the military that recently has killed hundreds of pro-Taliban fighters, soldiers, and civilians in the scenic area once popular with tourists.
Activists warn that the plan by the NWFP's caretaker government would be a first step toward creating a Taliban-like state within Pakistan, strengthening the militants and further radicalizing the already restive region, including the Pashtun areas across the border in Afghanistan.
It's unclear when the changes would take effect. But provincial authorities could only push them through before national elections scheduled for February 18.
"It's an attempt to pacify the extremist, militant forces in Swat and Dir and Chitral," Iqbal Haider, the secretary-general of the Karachi-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "This strategy of appeasement of the religious fanatic killers has only resulted in increasing the influence and activities of the terrorists."
If implemented, the proposal would greatly expand the powers of Shari'a courts, whose judges rule solely according to their own interpretation of Islamic law. The tribunals would also be able to review laws and there would be limited opportunity to appeal their rulings.
Haider says the NWFP's caretaker government has only one legal mandate: to hold free and fair elections on February 18. He says such fundamental legislation should be left to the next elected government, once it assumes office.
Provincial authorities say the proposed courts are a response to rising popular demands in Swat that call for strengthening Shari'a courts to dispense what locals say would be inexpensive and speedy justice. Provincial authorities say the move would also help ease unrest by meeting some of the militants' demands.
But Kamaran Arif, the provincial head of HRCP in Peshawar, says there has been no consultation with local civil society leaders in the area. "Swat is quite developed -- they have quite a lot of [educated] people," he says. "All the political parties are active there. If such big changes have to be made, then obviously, they have to discuss it with the people. It has to be with the consent of the people."
Arif adds that the proposal would empower the Shari'a courts to decide whether existing laws are "Islamic" -- even though the Pakistani Constitution only grants parliament the authority to make such decisions.
Arif also says the Shari'a court rulings could not be appealed in Pakistan's highest secular courts, depriving citizens of a fundamental right under the Pakistani legal system.
Guilt By Association
One key provision in the proposal would introduce the notion of "collective responsibility," under which a tribe or community will be deemed responsible for the actions of a single individual.
This specific provision is seen as a throwback to colonial times, when the British crafted laws to deal with the often-rebellious Pashtun tribes. Known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations, these laws are still implemented in the tribal areas under the direct supervision of Islamabad. Many experts blame them for chronic underdevelopment in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.
"That ['collective responsibility'] might make life easier for the administrative officers or for the provincial and local governments," Arif says. "But I think that in the long run, it destroys all institutions. So if you are going to have a separate legal system there, then that's a first step toward creating a state for the Taliban within the country."
In the mid-1990s, a Pakistani court declared that the Frontier Crimes Regulations laws violated the constitution, and ordered the government to replace them in the NWFP's tribal areas.
But under pressure from Islamists, the government eventually compromised and established some Islamic courts -- within the supervision of the higher provincial and federal courts.
That supervision, under the proposed changes, would disappear.