Proposed Afghan constitution to be made public this week

Monday, September 29, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A new constitution that will be put forward soon for ratification declares Afghanistan a Muslim state but stops short of imposing Islamic Shariah law, a contentious issue in this conservative nation, an Afghan official said on Sunday.

As they draw up a constitution aimed at unifying the fragmented nation, conservatives and secularists have been hotly debating how to enshrine Islam into law after years under the Taliban, who enforced a harsh version of Shariah that some Afghans recall with horror but others support.

The hard-line Taliban militia banned women from working, barred girls from school and ordered men to grow their beards long and pray five times a day, as well as carried out executions and amputations for a range of crimes.

Ratifying a constitution is crucial for Afghanistan as it lays the foundations for its first democratic elections in decades, scheduled for June. The rebuilders of Afghanistan hope that vote will be a cornerstone for political stability after 23 years of war.

A 10-day meeting of a 500-member loya jirga, or grand council, will debate and ratify the constitution. The gathering was pushed back by two months to December after President Hamid Karzai demanded more time to finish the document.

After 11 months of work by dozens of constitutional experts and three months of public consultations in which 150,000 people submitted suggestions, a draft will likely be released this week.

The question of Shariah has been "a huge struggle" in the work on the constitution, said an Afghan official involved in the drafting.

"So far, the focus has been on trying to find a consensus," the official told the AP on condition on anonymity. But, he said, "a balance has been found."

The document's preamble declares, "Afghanistan is an Islamic state" and says its laws must be in accordance with Islam, but it does not impose Shariah, the official said.

The Taliban, who ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001, ignored the former constitution altogether and imposed their interpretation of Shariah. After their removal, an interim administration was established and Shariah law was dropped. It is operating under an amended version of a 1964 constitution drafted under former King Mohammad Zaher Shah.

Some in Afghanistan support the version of Shariah imposed by the Taliban, others argue that Islamic law should be the law of the land -- even if it's not the interpretation practiced by the Taliban, who emerged from hard-line religious schools in Pakistan.

While most Arab states define themselves as Muslim nations in their constitution, some call Shariah the basis of their laws and some make no mention of it.

Shariah at all. Saudi Arabia enforces a version of Islamic law that is somewhat less strict than the Taliban's.

Karzai has been given a draft of the constitution for review and will release it to the public "in the next few days," Constitutional Review Commission spokesman Abdul Ghafoor Lewal said. He declined to comment on the content of the document.

Another official said it would be released Thursday or Friday, after Karzai returns from an overseas trip.

Even though the 35 members of the Constitutional Review Commission have finally agreed to the wording of the text, it is far from certain whether members of the loya jirga will reach a consensus. Many of the council's members are warlords and may feel their authority will be undermined by a strong national constitution.

Karzai's administration has little authority outside of the capital, Kabul, and many initiatives to expand his power have failed because of opposition from the warlords, who have private militias and rule their territory as if they are fiefdoms.

Other contentious issues have included ensuring women have rights equal to men in a society where they have long been discriminated against; and which of Afghanistan's many ethnic languages will be made the national one.

The structure the future government will take has also been hotly debated. It is expected to have a president and prime minister, however, how much authority each post will have is yet to be decided.

Karzai, who is widely expected to win the June elections, is pushing for the presidency to have broad powers, the official involved in drafting the constitution said.

As a Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, Karzai would then be expected to appoint a Tajik, the second largest ethnic group, as prime minister -- and Tajik politicians have been pushing for the prime minister's position to be powerful, the official said.

The commission sent 460,000 questionnaires out to the public this year and held meetings in villages across the country seeking public input.

"So many people replied, including women who said they wanted more rights and good education," Lewal said. "The illiterate sent cassette tapes and we got tens of thousands of letters."

He said the commission has also studied the constitutions of 80 other countries -- especially those nations with large Muslim populations or ones that have recently emerged from years of war.

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