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Pakistan police lodge charges against cleric

Pakistani police lodged criminal charges against a cleric who helped negotiate a peace deal with the Swat Valley Taliban, accusing Sunday him of aiding terrorism, sedition and conspiring against the government, a police said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pakistani authorities lodged a criminal case Sunday against a cleric who helped negotiate a failed peace deal with the Swat Valley Taliban, suggesting the government is determined not to negotiate again with the militants.

Sufi Muhammad, father-in-law of Swat's notorious Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, is accused of aiding terrorism, sedition and conspiring against the government, Swat police Chief Sajid Mohmand said. The charges carry a minimum penalty of life imprisonment and a maximum of death.

The case suggests Pakistan is moving away from its past willingness to negotiate with militants, but could also be a way to pressure Muhammad to reveal any information he has about the location of the Swat Valley Taliban's leaders, who have evaded capture despite a three-month military offensive.

Pakistani troops still skirmish with militants in the valley although the offensive is winding down. Some 2 million people fled Swat and the wider region in the early weeks of the offensive, but hundreds of thousands have been returned over the past two weeks.

The cleric helped negotiate a peace deal in February that imposed Islamic law in the valley, which the U.S. had warned could turn the region into a safe haven for insurgents. The pact collapsed in mid-April after Taliban militants infiltrated a district south of Swat, and the military launched its offensive.

Mohmand, the police chief, said seven of Muhammad's aides, including two killed in a clash between militants and the army, were also named in the case.

Muhammad, who was arrested last Sunday near the northwestern city of Peshawar, must appear before a court within 15 days to be formally charged, Mohmand said, but noted there are still no functioning courts in Swat. Mohmand said authorities would seek a legal opinion to determine whether the case could be moved to Peshawar if no Swat court is up and running in time.

‘Threatening the sovereignty of Pakistan’
The charges stem from comments Muhammad made during an April speech in which he condemned democracy and elections and said Pakistan's constitution was un-Islamic.

"It is tantamount to threatening the sovereignty of Pakistan," Mohmand said.

The speech revolted many people in Pakistan, leaving even some hard-line Islamist political party leaders silent, and it was considered to be an important factor in shifting public opinion against the Taliban.

The Swat police chief said authorities were confident they had enough evidence to prove the charges against Muhammad.

"We have recordings of all of his speeches where he had instigated masses against the government of Pakistan and its institutions," Mohmand told The Associated Press, adding that investigators would continue gathering evidence, particularly about the cleric's support for the militants during the peace process.

Pakistan's government relied heavily on Muhammad's contacts with the Taliban in the Swat area to achieve the failed peace agreement earlier this year, which imposed Islamic law in the region in exchange for an end to two years of fighting.

Muhammad himself does not control the armed militants in Swat, and it is unclear how much impact his detention will have on the insurgents fighting in the scenic valley.

But he mobilized thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion there in 2001. He was jailed in 2002 but was freed last year after renouncing violence.

The Swat Taliban's ability to re-emerge will depend more on its leaders, including Fazlullah. The army says Fazlullah has been wounded, although the Taliban reportedly have denied it. None of the commanders is definitively known to have been captured or killed.

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