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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 17:10 GMT
Pakistan votes to amend rape laws
Women's protest outside national assembly in Islamabad
Women protested outside parliament as the debate was held
Pakistan's national assembly has voted to amend the country's strict Sharia laws on rape and adultery.

Until now rape cases were dealt with in Sharia courts. Victims had to have four male witnesses to the crime - if not they faced prosecution for adultery.

Now civil courts will be able to try rape cases, assuming the upper house and the president ratify the move.

The reform has been seen as a test of President Musharraf's stated commitment to a moderate form of Islam.

"It is a historic bill because it will give rights to women and help end excesses against them," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told parliament after the vote.

Religious parties boycotted the vote, saying the bill encouraged "free sex".

'Lewdness'

A woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours in Pakistan, according to the country's independent Human Rights Commission.

The bill will turn Pakistan into a free-sex zone
MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman

Correspondents say these figures are probably an under-estimation as many rapes are not reported.

Campaigners say Pakistan's laws have made it virtually impossible to prosecute rape.

Attempts to pass a new bill failed in September in the face of angry opposition.

The version of the Women's Protection Bill put before legislators then caused such an outcry that parliament was prorogued.

It would have allowed alleged rapists to be tried under civil as well as Islamic law.

 A Pakistani woman passes a portrait of President Pervez Musharraf
Gen Musharraf has said women need to be better protected

Human rights activists said this would have created confusion, allowing powerful religious lobbies to manipulate what is seen as a weak judicial system.

Now rape will be tried under civil law, the Pakistan Penal Code.

Sex outside marriage, which has always been illegal, will still be tried by both civil and Sharia courts, depending on which system the complainant chooses, the BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan in Karachi says.

Pakistan's religious parties called the new legislation "a harbinger of lewdness and indecency in the country", and against the strictures of the Koran and Sharia law.

They have threatened nationwide protests over the revised bill.

Addressing parliament on Wednesday, the leader of the six-party MMA Islamic alliance, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, said the bill would "turn Pakistan into a free-sex zone".

"Existing laws are correct and should be maintained...The changes are not in line with Islamic teaching."

The government insisted that some of the MMA's proposals had been included in the bill.

Lashings

Rape and adultery in Pakistan are dealt with under the Hudood Ordinance, a controversial set of Islamic laws introduced from 1979 by Gen Zia-ul-Haq.

They include sections prescribing lashing and stoning as punishments for adultery.

The bill tabled in the summer and withdrawn was then reviewed by a panel of ulema, or Islamic scholars, who suggested three revisions.




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The changes to Pakistan's rape laws



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