PAKISTAN'S Government has claimed a historic victory against religious conservatives after winning a vote to change the country's controversial rape laws.
The parliamentary vote on Wednesday night scrapped a law that placed an almost impossible burden of proof on women bringing a claim of rape and exposed them to charges of adultery.
The amendment, which was backed by Western governments, will lend much-needed credibility to the "enlightened moderation" policy formulated by Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz hailed the vote, saying: "It is a historic bill because it will give rights to women and help end excesses against them."
But the leader of the Islamist opposition coalition, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, said the change to the law would encourage free sex.
The amendment to the country's Hudood ordinance, introduced by an earlier military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, in 1979, transfers the crime of rape from the sphere of Islamic law to that of the civil penal code.
The change ends the requirement for four Muslim males to have witnessed a rape and introduces the concept of statutory rape, outlawing sex with girls under 16. The Hudood code only prohibited sex with girls before puberty.
The bill must be approved by the upper house of parliament before it becomes law.
Human rights groups welcomed the amendment but accused the Pakistani Government of caving in to pressure from Islamists and said the Hudood ordinance should be repealed in its entirety.
In an apparent concession to conservatives, a "lewdness" provision was introduced shortly before the vote. It sets down punishment of up to five years in prison for extra-marital sex and a 114,500 rupee ($2460) fine.
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New rape laws to halt adultery charges for victims
Salman Masood in Islamabad
November 17, 2006
THE Pakistani Government has pushed through legislation to amend rape laws that human rights advocates say have led to punishment for thousands of innocent victims.
The passage of the laws, opposed by Islamist parties, was seen as a test for President Pervez Musharraf's commitment to steering Pakistan towards moderation.
Months of wrangling and political opposition had cast doubts on whether the Government would succeed in passing the changes. Under the current law, the Hudood Ordinance, women who reported being raped could be prosecuted for adultery.
The law was enacted in 1979 by the military dictator Muhammad Zia al-Haq, to appease Islamists who contended that he was secularising the country.
General Musharraf made an appearance on state television and congratulated the nation on the passage of the Women's Protection Bill.
"This process of empowerment, protection of women will continue," he said.
Under the Hudood Ordinance, rape is included in matters covered under Islamic law, like marriage and divorce. A woman who reports that she has been raped must produce four male witnesses to prove it. If she fails to do so, she can be prosecuted for adultery. Thousands of women have been punished under the law, often on the flimsiest evidence. That risk has kept many women from trying to bring their attackers to justice.
The legislation passed on Wednesday gives judges the discretion to try rape cases in a criminal rather than an Islamic court. It allows the use of forensic and circumstantial evidence as a basis for convictions, as in other crimes.
The amendment also introduces the concept of carnal knowledge, outlawing sex with girls under 16. The Islamic code had merely banned sex with girls before puberty.
The change in the law comes after high-profile cases were widely publicised in Pakistan by women's rights groups and in the West, bringing considerable pressure to bear on the Government. They include cases in which local authorities have permitted rape as a way of compensating someone judged to have been wronged by the woman's male relatives.
Dealing with Hudood laws has been a political minefield for General Musharraf, with Islamic opposition parties saying that changing the laws would violate the principles of Islam. Pakistani officials have taken pains to convince the public amending the laws would not violate Islamic precepts.
"I assure the entire nation that no Pakistani can ever think of enacting law that is repugnant to the holy Koran and the Sunnah," General Musharraf said.
Because of pressure from Islamic groups, however, the measure still allows prosecutions for fornication.
The New York Times