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Pakistan Islamic law changes hits snag

Published: 9:57PM Thursday September 14, 2006 Source: Reuters

Pakistan's government has delayed presenting a bill to parliament to reform Islamic laws covering rape and adultery after a key coalition partner rejected a compromise with Islamist parties, officials said on Thursday.

The government gave in last week to a hard-line Islamist alliance, the largest opposition bloc in the chamber, after it threatened to quit parliament if the laws, commonly known as the Hudood Ordinances, were changed.

But the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a major ally of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, said it would not accept the deal because of ideological differences with Islamists.

"We don't want to cave in to conservative people who want to take the country back to mediaeval times," Kunwar Khalid Yunus, a senior MQM leader, told Reuters on Thursday.

"The government should not allow itself to be blackmailed by these people."

Some observers say the government decision to delay presentation of the diluted bill, which was to have taken place on Wednesday, might be aimed at saving President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led war on terrorism, from embarrassment during a visit to the United States next week.

Musharraf, who promotes an ideology of "enlightened moderation", had earlier assured rights activists he would back any moves to amend or repeal the laws.

The government said it wanted more time to consult political parties on the proposed changes.

"We want to bring this bill in the parliament with consensus," Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani told Reuters.

"There is no pressure on us. We are not in a hurry to present it. We want to take all on board," he added.

Controversy over the Hudood Ordinances reflects a long tug-of-war war between Pakistani liberals and conservatives over the direction of Muslim society.

Human rights groups say the laws discriminate against women while Islamists say opponents of the Hudood Ordinances, introduced in 1979 by then military ruler Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, want to westernise the nation.

One of the most controversial clauses of the laws provides that a rape victim is liable to prosecution for adultery if she cannot produce four male witnesses to the crime.

Last month the government drafted an amendment taking rape out of the sphere of religious law and putting it under the penal code.
But the threat by the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance to withdraw from the national and provincial assemblies persuaded the government to accede to the conservatives' demand that the crime of rape should be kept under both the civil criminal code and the Islamic code.

The government also accepted adultery being made a crime under the penal code, subject to five years in prison.

Women's rights groups have deplored the government's compromise with Islamists.
They said the concessions would give the Hudood laws a clear edge over the penal code after the government agreed to a catch-all demand that injunctions in the Koran and Sunnah, the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, would have effect "notwithstanding anything contained in any other law".