- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Despite nationwide protests by hard-liners, President Pervez Musharraf has signed into law an amendment to the country’s controversial rape statute to make it easier to prosecute sexual assault cases.

Human rights activists have long condemned Pakistan’s old law for punishing — instead of protecting — rape victims, while providing legal safeguards for their attackers.

The new legislation, known as the Protection of Women Bill, was supported by Gen. Musharraf’s government as part of efforts by Islamabad to soften the country’s hard-line Islamic image and appease moderates and human rights groups who opposed the old law.

The changes signed into law yesterday take effect immediately, Federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afghan said during a nationally televised broadcast.

“It has been done to safeguard the rights of women,” Mr. Afghan said.

The law was enacted even as thousands of religious conservatives rallied against the changes at several protests around the country.

Islamists gathered by the hundreds at separate events in the southwestern city of Quetta, the eastern city of Lahore and the city of Rawalpindi, just south the capital Islamabad.

Opposition leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of a six-party coalition of Islamist groups known as the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, called the changes an affront to Islam and said Gen. Musharraf was promoting an alien culture at the behest of the United States and Western Europe.

“I call on all people to prevent Musharraf and his team from wrecking Muslim society,” Mr. Ahmed told nearly 1,000 demonstrators in Rawalpindi. He said the new law would only fuel public anger against Gen. Musharraf’s ruling party ahead of national assembly elections next year.

“Their days are close to finished,” he said. “The struggle has already started.”

Rights groups hailed the new law, but said it only went half way.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Hina Jillani, a vice chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “But if you incorporate the demands only partially, the problems will not go away.”

Her group has been campaigning for the full repeal of the old laws since the 1970s, when they were introduced by late President Zia ul-Haq to make Pakistani legislation more Islamic.

Under the new law, which was approved last week by Parliament, judges can choose whether a rape case should be tried in a criminal court — where the four-witness rule would not apply — or under the old Islamic law, known as the Hudood Ordinance.

It also drops the death penalty for sex outside of marriage. The offense would now be punishable with five years in prison or a fine of $165.

International and local calls for change intensified after the 2002 gang rape of a woman who was assaulted after a tribal council in her eastern Punjab village ordered the rape as punishment for her 13-year-old brother’s reputed affair with a woman of a higher caste.

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