MINGORA, PAKISTAN // Zarbakht Khan is still waiting for Swat Valley's corrupt and slow-moving courts to settle an eight-year land dispute that has drained his bank account and eroded his confidence in the state. Such delays were exploited by Taliban militants, whose promises of swift justice appealed to people when they first took over the region. Nearly a year after they were driven out by a major military offensive, judicial officials have launched a drive to speed up and reform Swat's legal system, hoping to win support from a population craving stability.
Their efforts may be paying off. "I am satisfied. My problem will end very soon," said Mr Khan, whose case dragged on for so long he retired along the way. The government's resolve was not always so strong. When the Taliban gained the upper hand in the battle with the government, the government allowed them to impose their austere version of Islamic law under a peace deal widely seen as a capitulation.
At first, the Taliban gained public support with promises of speedy justice. But public beheadings and floggings outraged many in Swat, a former tourist paradise beneath lush mountains. Mingora's court shut. Judges and lawyers were out of work. But now, by accelerating the judiciary, Swat officials hope to win over the public and prevent the Taliban from ever regaining influence, coinciding with efforts to build up an underfunded police force.
"This is a crucial strategy to keep people on our side. We recently reduced the number of backlogged cases from 18,000 to 2,300," said the judge Tariq Suhail, smiling proudly. Sixteen new judges have been hired and new courts created. The aim is to process new criminal cases within four months and civil ones in six. In a dusty storage room outside the court, bags bulging with documents from closed cases point to success.
There are few expectations the al Qa'eda-backed Taliban can seize control of Swat again, as long as the army, now deploying 50,000 troops in the region, is around. But militants still strike in Mingora and other towns and villages where they blew up houses, hotels and schools for girls. A suicide bomber recently targeted the courthouse, officials said. Police stopped him at a checkpoint a few hundred metres away where he blew himself up, killing 14 people and wounding 50.
Despite the progress in the judicial system, some, such as Khaled, whose sons were accused of assault, doubt there can ever be real justice. The charges were eventually dropped. But he accused police of beating his boys to obtain confessions. Eventually, he gave up his efforts to get compensation for the beatings. "I can't afford to pay for a lawyer," said the elderly man, as his sons sat quietly on a window sill behind him.