ISLAMABAD (AFP) -Islamic fundamentalists called for mass protests after Pakistan’s parliament voted that rape and adultery cases should no longer be heard under the country’s harsh religious laws.
Lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill introduced by the government of military ruler President Pervez Musharraf that will overhaul widely criticised religious legislation dating back to 1979.
The laws currently say that women must produce four Muslim male witnesses as evidence of rape — an almost impossible burden of evidence — or potentially face adultery charges themselves.
“We will protest countrywide against the bill and the policies of the military dictator,” said Liaquat Baloch, deputy leader of the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, United Action Front), an alliance of Islamic parties.
The alliance’s supreme council met in Islamabad Thursday to decide whether to resign from parliament as it has threatened. The council is also expected to call formally for protests after traditional Muslim prayers on Friday.
“This bill has been brought under the directions of the United States and implemented by their representative in Pakistan, General Musharraf,” Baloch told AFP.
The Pakistani government had backed out of three previous attempts to push the bill through following an outcry from religious radicals in this conservative Islamic republic.
It is a largely symbolic victory as the number of women actually convicted under the notorious “Hudood (Limits) Laws” has been relatively small. The laws have run parallel to Pakistan’s British-influenced penal code.
But the issue has reopened faultlines between Musharraf, a self-proclaimed “enlightened moderate”, and the religious parties who bitterly opposed his support for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
“Women will no longer suffer victimisation because the clause related to rape and adultery has now been put under the (secular) Pakistan penal code,” Musharraf said in a televised address to the nation late Wednesday.
“We will continue to make efforts to make sure that there is no discrimination against women.”
Musharraf — who seized power in a 1999 coup and once counted the religious parties as his allies — has escaped at least three assassination attempts blamed on Islamic extremists.
Bearded and turbaned hardline legislators stormed out of the national assembly, the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament, before the vote took place on Wednesday.
Opposition leader and MMA secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman gave a fiery speech to lawmakers on Wednesday in which he warned that the bill would “turn Pakistan into a free-sex society”.
The late military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, introduced the Hudood Laws 27 years ago as part of a sweeping Islamisation of Pakistan that coincided with the country’s role in the anti-Soviet “jihad” in Afghanistan.
The maximum sentence for adultery by a man or a woman under the laws is death by stoning, although that has never been enforced and those convicted of the crime get jail or a fine instead.
Human rights groups who have long campaigned for a change in the law hailed the bill as a step forward for Pakistani women.