Justice harsh in ‘courts' of the resurgent Taliban

As the two women hunkered down in the dark, enveloped in blue burqas, they thought the gun-toting Taliban might free them despite claims they ran a prostitution ring for a U.S. base.

“I hope they release us tonight so we can go home,” one said.

“There must be some reason why they have brought us here,” the other responded.

Soon after, the militants shot them dead.

The recent executions, witnessed in central Ghazni province by an Afghan journalist who contributes to The Associated Press, reflects the Taliban's resurgent presence in Afghanistan and their growing ability to dispense an extreme version of Islamic justice.

The Taliban are not as powerful as when they ruled Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and regularly staged executions to stadium crowds. But as the insurgency turns more violent, the Taliban have again gained control of parts of the country where the U.S.-backed central government has little authority.

One sign is the spread of a shadow justice system, with anecdotal reports of militants' setting up “courts” and meting out harsh punishments.

Sometimes villagers go to the Taliban because their courts move faster and appear less corrupt, experts said. Other times, in Taliban strongholds, people are afraid to turn anywhere else.

Over the past two years, there have been more reports of local clerics referring people to the Taliban, in part because of their commitment to Islamic law, said John Dempsey, head of the U.S. Institute of Peace office in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban are trying to reassert control not only in terms of fighting and taking control of a town militarily, but also trying to put into place other structures of government that will build legitimacy,” Dempsey said.

Many reports about Taliban justice come from the southern provinces, where the insurgency is strongest. There are signs, however, that the militants are spreading their tentacles further, even outside Afghanistan. Taliban-style punishments have grown common in border regions of neighboring Pakistan, where Islamic extremists now hold considerable sway.

In June, militants executed two people accused of spying for the U.S. in front of thousands of cheering supporters in Bajur, a Pakistani tribal region. Islamist gunmen regularly shame alleged thieves in tribal areas by blackening their faces, shaving their heads and parading them through streets after a summary trial before a self-styled religious court.

The first thing the Taliban do when they come into an area is to set up courts, said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who has written extensively on the militants.

“They insist on the local people going there rather than to the police or the official courts,” Rashid said.