11/16/2006, 00.00
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Pakistan: amendments to Hudood Ordinances approved

The General Assembly approved a new bill of law that takes adultery and rape out of the sphere of the Islamic law and puts it under the penal code. However, all punishments provided for in the notorious Hudood Ordinances – including stoning to death, lashing and amputation – remain valid. Religious fundamentalists are against any amendments.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Pakistani MPs have approved amendments to the controversial Hudood Ordinances, under which crimes like rape and adultery would be judged by civil instead of Islamic courts. The draft Women's Protection Bill approved yesterday by the General Assembly has long been the subject of debate. It has been seen as a litmus test of the stated commitment to a policy of "enlightened moderation" held by President Pervez Musharraf against Muslim religious parties.

The Hudood Ordinances were approved in 1979 under General Zia-ul-Haq's military junta. They include four sections that regulate propriety, qazaf [false accusations of adultery], adultery and prohibitions that are binding to non-Muslims as well where alcohol and gambling are concerned. Everything falls under the general rule that, in court, non-Muslims must be tried by a Muslim judge and have a Muslim lawyer.

Although it retains all Islamic punishments provided for in the Hudood Ordinances – including stoning to death, lashing and amputation – the new bill will bring significant changes. The most significant regards the crime of sexual violence against women. The Ordinances did not distinguish between adultery and rape: a woman rape victim who wants justice from the state must bring to an Islamic court four adult Muslim males to testify that the act was carried out using violence. According to the Ordinances, should the victim fail to produce these witnesses, she may find herself accused of adultery and imprisoned.

The amendments approved take rape out of the sphere of the religious law and put it under the penal code, allowing convictions to be made on the basis of circumstantial evidence. The bill also declares it is illegal to have sexual relations with women aged less than 16. Now the Women Protection Bill must be scrutinized and approved by the Senate.

The government abandoned debate about the amendments to the Hudood in September in the face of tough opposition from Islamic parties, which claim the idea of changing laws inspired by the Koran is a sacrilege.

Even after yesterday's vote, human and civil rights groups continue to call for the total repeal of the laws, considered draconian and increasingly used as a pretext to settle personal scores.

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More than 1,000 women in jail to be released on bail shortly
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