Pakistan rape law about to change
Judges to be granted discretion to try cases in criminal court rather than Islamic court
Salman Masood, New York Times
Thursday, November 16, 2006
(11-16) 04:00 PST Islamabad, Pakistan -- After months of delay, the Pakistani government on Wednesday finally pushed legislation through Parliament to amend rape laws that human-rights advocates say have led to punishment for thousands of innocent women.
The passage of the legislation, which has been opposed by Islamist parties, was seen as a litmus test for President Pervez Musharraf's commitment to steer the country toward moderation and enlightenment. Because of pressure from Islamic groups, however, the measure that passed Wednesday still contains provisions that concern human-rights groups.
Months of wrangling and political opposition had cast doubts as to whether the government would succeed in passing the changes to the current Hudood law under which women who report rape can end up being prosecuted for adultery. The law was enacted in 1979 by a former military dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia al-Haq, to appease Islamists who contended that he was secularizing the country.
Late Wednesday night, Musharraf made an appearance on state-run television and congratulated the nation on the passage of the Women's Protection bill, saying, "This process of empowerment, protection of women, will continue."
Under the Hudood ordinance, rape is included in matters covered under Islamic law, along with 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 Wednesday gives judges the discretion to try rape cases in a criminal, rather than an Islamic, court. The new legislation allows forensic and circumstantial evidence to be used as a basis for convictions, as with other crimes. The amendment also introduces the concept of statutory rape -- 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 that were widely publicized here by women's-rights groups and in the West, and that brought 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 Musharraf, with Islamic opposition political parties saying that changing the laws would violate the principles of Islam. Pakistani officials have taken pains to convince the public that amending the laws would not violate Islamic precepts, and Musharraf repeated that theme in his remarks.
"I assure the entire nation that no Pakistani can ever think of enacting law that is repugnant to the Holy Quran and the Sunnah," the recorded teachings and actions of Muhammad, he said.
The new law would continue to allow prosecutions for what it calls "fornication," a provision that was introduced at the insistence of religious scholars and was backed by the alliance of religious opposition parties. Human-rights advocates on Wednesday expressed concern over that provision.
Musharraf said in his televised address that the government "did not cave in to the mullahs" and that "the section regarding fornication was inserted after consultation with legal experts and ruling party members."
An attempt to pass a new law in September broke down after threats of mass resignations by the religious alliance forced the government to pull back the legislation. But on Wednesday, the government finally moved ahead, and the lower house of the Parliament passed the bill in one sitting. To become law, it must be approved by the Senate, which is expected to do so, and by Musharraf.