Pakistan to broaden rape laws, but women's groups see setback

Parliament is expected to vote this week to allow evidence in rape cases other than four male eyewitnesses.

A bill originally intended to repeal Pakistan's controversial rape laws is likely to suffer a severe setback this week, analysts say, when Parliament votes on a watered-down version designed to placate conservatives.

Under the country's long-standing Hudood Ordinances, a woman who claims to have been raped must produce four Muslim male eyewitnesses to the crime – a virtual impossibility in most cases. If the witnesses cannot be produced, the rape victim herself can be charged with fornication, or adultery if she is already married, a crime punishable in the most stringent circumstances by death.

This, and other provisions regarding public morality, have prompted calls from human rights activists and progressives for repeal of the Hudood Ordinances since their inception in 1979. The push for changing the laws gathered steam this summer after a private television channel initiated a series of debates on whether the laws are indeed rooted in the Koran and the Sunna (the sayings of Muhammad), as some religious conservatives contend.

The government channeled the repeal momentum into a narrower effort focused on repealing the rape provisions. The Protection of Women bill was supposed to come to a vote on Monday. But the government has now postponed it until Wednesday because, it says, it wanted to consult with religious scholars who could ensure the bill honors the spirit of religious law.

Progressives, rights activists, some members of the government had hoped that a vote on the Hudood Ordinances would place secular law over religious edicts. But after conservatives flexed their political muscle, the government has announced it will not touch the religious laws.

Instead it has struck a compromise, one which many say reflects the tightrope it must tread: Rape will remain under the purview of Islamic law, but judges can also choose to use secular evidentiary procedures provided by Pakistan's penal code if the circumstances of evidence and witnesses call for it.

Ruling party members say the amendment will constitute a step forward. "We are going to make it easier for [rapists] to be convicted," says Tarique Azim Khan, spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League, the ruling party.

But many analysts and activists say the bill highlights the power of hard-line Islamists to strong-arm the government.

"It might be a step forward, but it's a step backward in the broader context of Pakistan," says Kamila Hyat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "Once again, it shows that the government caved into the pressure of extremists."

This week's decision, which comes after months of political wrangling and protests, is one of the central skirmishes in a larger battle between secular and religious forces, a kind of barometer of Pakistan's commitment to progressive values, analysts say.

Women's rights activists and progressives argue that rape should be placed under Pakistan's penal code, where standard criminal and evidentiary procedures apply. The Hudood requirements, they say, place the onus of proof on women, and are therefore inherently discriminatory.

The new bill likely to be passed this week claims to put an end to this controversy: In the event that four witnesses cannot be found, a judge is empowered to use evidentiary standards of the penal code, such as DNA tests or other medical means, to establish rape.

Mr. Khan, of the ruling party, calls it a major step forward. "A judge can decide that a woman's own testimony is good enough, without the need for four witnesses."

Almost all analysts agree that, since finding four eyewitnesses to rape is practically impossible, most cases going forward will likely be tried under secular law.

Nonetheless, hard-line Islamists insist that the witness rule must remain on the books so as to honor Islamic principles. "It is important because [the four-witness rule] is a God-given law, and no court can amend God-given laws," says Dr. Fareed Ahmed Paracha, a member of the National Assembly from Jamaat-Islami, one of the conservative parties working to uphold the Hudood laws.

As part of the compromise reached this week, the government has ensured it will keep the witness rule on the books, as well as the strict punishments for adultery and fornication between unmarried persons codified in Hudood – currently 100 lashes or even death by stoning. Dr. Paracha says such punishments are rarely if ever administered, but must remain on the books as a deterrent.

Such small victories symbolize the power conservative religious parties have to sidetrack political reform, analysts say. More than 60 hard-line politicians, who view the repeal of Hudood as blasphemy, have threatened for weeks to resign from the National Assembly, organizing street protests and rallies. Their mass exodus would have forced fresh elections for those seats, with no guarantee that conservative elements or the ruling party – the pillars of President Musharraf's constituency – would be voted back in.

"It clearly shows the lack of commitment," says Bushra Gohar, a women's rights activist in Islamabad. "The government is going to try to appease the extremists rather than looking to the rights of women."

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