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Pakistan lawmakers OK changes to rape law

Pakistan's lower house of Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill giving greater rights to women by amending the country's strict Islamic laws on rape, but human rights groups called for the laws to be scrapped altogether.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pakistani lawmakers passed amendments to the country’s rape laws Wednesday, ditching the death penalty for extramarital sex and easing a clause on making rape victims produce four witnesses to prove the case.

The amendments enraged Islamic fundamentalists but won cautious support from human rights activists, who wanted the controversial laws scrapped altogether.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf praised lawmakers for approving the amendments and criticized Islamic fundamentalists for their “unnecessary” opposition and claims that his government was acting against Islam.

“I have taken a firm decision to change these unjust rape laws as it was necessary to amend them to protect women,” Musharraf said in a televised address to the nation.

Pakistan’s late military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, introduced the laws, known as the Hudood Ordinance, in 1979 to appease Islamic fundamentalist political groups opposed to the secularization of Pakistani society.

Human rights activists and moderates have long condemned the laws for punishing — instead of protecting — rape victims by placing the burden of proof on them and providing safeguards for their attackers, such as requiring four eyewitnesses to bring rape charges.

The amendments, which Musharraf urged the government-run Senate to approve within days, come amid efforts by Islamabad to soften the country’s hard-line Islamic image and appease moderates and human rights groups opposed to the laws.

More protection for women urged
Hina Jillani, a leading female Pakistani human rights activist, praised the government for taking practical steps to amend the rape laws, but demanded more legislation to protect women’s rights.

“The government has made some positive changes by passing this bill, but it does not meet our demands,” said Jillani, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “We wanted a total repeal of the 1979 rape law, but the government has not done it.”

International and local calls for change intensified after the 2002 gang-rape of a woman, Mukhtar Mai, who was assaulted after a tribal council in her eastern Punjab village ordered the rape as punishment for her 13-year-old brother’s alleged affair with a woman of a higher caste.

The amendments include dropping the death penalty and flogging for people convicted of having consensual sex outside marriage and giving judges discretion to try rape cases in a criminal rather than Islamic court. Strict Islamic law dictates that a woman claiming rape must produce four witnesses, making a trial almost impossible.

Consensual sex outside marriage remains a crime punishable by five years in prison or a $165 fine, said a parliamentary official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Pro-Islamic lawmakers stormed out of the National Assembly Wednesday in protest of the new legislation, known as the Protection of Women Bill.

“We reject it,” Maulana Fazlur Rahman, a top Islamist opposition leader, told reporters after the vote, which he described as a “dark day” in Pakistan’s parliamentary history.

'Nothing is against Islam in this bill'
Rahman and other Islamists vowed to devise a strategy to block Senate passage of the bill. Islamic political groups have previously staged mass rallies to denounce moves by the military-led government deemed contrary to Islam.

The amendments were passed by a majority of the 342-member assembly, including Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who said it marked “a historic day” for the country.

“Nothing is against Islam in this bill,” Aziz said, adding that the amendments were made in consultation with Islamic scholars, lawmakers and human rights activists.

Discussion on the bill broke down in September after the government failed to win support from opposition Islamic groups, particularly for abolishing the need for four witnesses to a rape.

In a compromise, the government proposed the clause allowing a judge to try cases in either a criminal court or in an Islamic court. The new bill also removed the right of police to detain people suspected of having sex outside of marriage, instead requiring a formal accusation in court.

Ali Dayan Hasan, a South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the Pakistani government had “failed to remove provisions criminalizing adultery” but had provided “partial relief” by repealing the death sentence.

“The Pakistani government remains in violation of its international obligations on ending discrimination against women,” Hasan said.