By Paul Garwood
Thursday, November 16, 2006
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 15 -- Pakistan's lower house of Parliament passed amendments to the country's rape laws Wednesday, ditching the death penalty for extramarital sex and revising a clause on making victims produce four witnesses to prove rape cases.
Consensual sex outside marriage would remain 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 reporters.
International and local calls for change intensified after the 2002 gang rape of Mukhtar Mai. A tribal council in her village in Punjab province ordered the rape as punishment for her 13-year-old brother's alleged affair with a woman of a higher caste.
The amendments enraged Islamic conservatives but won cautious support from human rights activists, who wanted the controversial laws scrapped altogether.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, praised lawmakers for approving the amendments and criticized fundamentalists for their "unnecessary" opposition and their 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. He urged the Senate, dominated by government allies, to swiftly approve the measure.
Pakistan's late dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, introduced the laws, known as the Hudood Ordinance, in 1979 to appease Islamic political groups opposed to the secularization of Pakistani society.
Human rights activists and moderates have long condemned the laws for punishing rape victims instead of protecting them. The laws placed the burden of proof on victims while providing safeguards for their attackers, such as requiring four eyewitnesses to bring rape charges.
The amendments coincide with efforts by the Islamabad government to soften the country's hard-line Islamic image and pacify opponents of the laws.
Hina Jilani , a leading Pakistani human rights activist, praised the government for taking practical steps to amend the laws, but she 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 Jilani, of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "We wanted a total repeal of the 1979 rape law, but the government has not done it."
The amendments drop the death penalty and flogging for people convicted of having consensual sex outside marriage and give judges discretion to try rape cases in a criminal court, rather than an Islamic court. Strict Islamic law dictates that a woman claiming rape must produce four witnesses, making a trial almost impossible.