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When the Afghanistan constitutional assembly, or loya jirga, decided on a new constitution for Afghanistan, everyone from the New York Times to President George W. Bush applauded the document for outlining a Western-style democracy for the country. However, some religious freedom watchers were not so pleased, and say it may provide the basis for a government only slightly less repressive than the Taliban.

The constitution, which isn't yet available online, sets up an elected bicameral legislature and a strong presidency, but it was criticized in its draft form by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. In February and April 2003 letters to President Bush, the commission warned of "troubling signs in the human rights situation in Afghanistan, including abuses against women and girls, torture and other human rights abuses committed by official agencies with apparent impunity, and public statements by the Afghan Chief Justice reminiscent of the Taliban period, including charging political opponents with blasphemy."

In an October New York Timesop-ed, members of the commission warned that the drafted constitution "does not yet provide for crucial human rights protections, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Because the draft enshrined Shari'ah (Islamic law), the commission worried that "Afghan citizens would continue to be in the hands of judges educated in Islamic law, rather than in civil law."

Now that the constitution has been ratified, religious freedom watchers say they are pleased that some elements of the constitution have been improved, but overall it leaves much to be desired—especially if Afghanistan is to be a model for an Iraqi constitution.

Shari'ah by any other name Reports ...

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January 2004

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