PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Professor Paul Robinson's fall seminar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School offered a unique opportunity for the ambitious student: a chance to make law, rather than just study it.
As part of a project sponsored by the United Nations, the class's sole task would be to craft an updated crime code for the Republic of Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean.
The job would be no exercise. The students would work with high-ranking Maldivian officials. Their final draft would be submitted to the country's parliament. As a bonus, some would get to travel to the tropical archipelago, known for its white beaches, coral reefs and luxurious resorts.
But there was a catch.
The students' client would be a regime that has outlawed dissent, jailed pro-democracy demonstrators and been accused by Amnesty International of "endemic torture and unfair trials."
And, the new legal code was to be based on the Shariah, a body of Islamic law that fundamentalist nations have used to subjugate women, crush free religious expression and impose personal behavior laws criminalizing homosexuality, alcohol consumption and sex outside marriage.
To third-year law student Tom Stenson, the situation posed a challenge too important to pass up.
"Is there a way to convince people that there is an Islamic alternative that doesn't include all the unpleasant practices? I think so," he said. "The criminal code that we'd like to present will comply with human rights norms. It will treat men and women equally. I don't think any of us would stand by and create a document that could be used for repression."
Fifty students applied for a seat in the class. Eighteen were accepted and have been immersed in the project for several weeks.
So far, many of the issues they tackled differ little from what they might encounter streamlining law in the West.
Stenson has been working on theft and kidnapping statutes. Other students have been codifying laws regarding fraud, forgery and rules on criminal culpability.
In interviews, several students said they have found little in Islamic law that requires the strict enforcement of centuries-old social norms favored by some Muslim scholars, and much in it that promotes social justice.
Their work doesn't sit well with everyone.
Daniel Pipes, head of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and a presidential appointee to the U.S. Institute of Peace, said it was a mistake for the class to do anything that could help prop up Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the strongman who has ruled Maldives since 1978.
"It's like working on the criminal law in Saddam Hussein's Iraq," Pipes said.
Pipes, an outspoken critic of militant Islam, called the Shariah incompatible with many western values, including freedom of religion, gender equality and the separation of church and state. He said it should be rejected as a source of state law, "not made prettier."
The criticism hasn't deterred Robinson, who sat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and has helped several nations revise their legal systems.
He said the brand of Islamic law practiced in Maldives is a far cry from the systems imposed in Saudi Arabia or under the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Maldivians stopped using the death penalty half a century ago. They don't cut off the hands of thieves. They don't have public stoning of adulterers," he said. "It is probably true that there are going to be differences we don't approve of, but what you have to understand is, they were the ones who decided who to approach and they approached us. That choice, by itself, tells you where they are headed."
He said he expects to present a draft code to Maldives by the end of November.
Whether it is ever implemented could depend on the resolution of evolving political tensions in the nation of 278,000 people, 300 miles off the coast of India.
On Aug. 13, security forces cracked down after 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators rallied in the capital. The European Parliament called for sanctions last month to protest the clampdown.
Gayoom has insisted he is serious about reform, including constitutional changes that would allow people to join opposition parties.