PAKISTAN: Over a thousand women freed under change in law

Islamabad, Pakistan - Women prisoners in Pakistan freed under an amendment to a controversial Islamic law began to be released over the weekend.

President General Pervez Musharraf amended the law, which has been on the statute book since 1979, on Friday. The change means women convicted of adultery or sex outside marriage can be released on bail rather than having to serve prison sentences.

The long-awaited amendment to the Hudood Ordinance would affect thousands of female prisoners, Pakistan’s Minister for Women’s Affairs, Sumaira Malik, told journalists in the capital, Islamabad.

“President Musharraf has taken a bold decision to protect the rights of women and save them from the misuse of Islamic laws,” Malik said. More than 1,300 women left a number of penal institutions on Saturday as a result of the change in the law.

Under the Hudood Ordinance - passed under the military dictatorship of the late General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq - women could be sentenced to death if found guilty of having sex outside marriage. The ordinance did not allow for women to be released on bail and specified a mandatory prison sentence for such offences.

Currently some 6,500 women are incarcerated in Pakistan awaiting trial on Hudood Ordinance charges, which critics say are blatantly discriminatory against women.

The government said it would provide legal and financial assistance to help rehabilitate those women released as a consequence of the changes.

Musharraf put his signature to the legal amendment during a meeting of female parliamentarians that he chaired.

During Friday’s meeting, Musharraf also indicated the government’s intention to scrap the Hudood Ordinance completely, according to those in attendance.

“The government will undo all those un-Islamic and inhuman laws enacted in the name of religion, Malik added.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) welcomed the move, but in a statement released on Monday, said the amendment did nothing to address the systemic flaws in the country's legal system.

“HRCP reiterates its stance that there is a need to repeal laws, particularly the Hudood Ordinances, which result in hundreds of women being unjustly jailed each year. The widespread abuse of power by police and the courts is also an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

Ever since its promulgation, the Hudood Ordinance has been a source of controversy between liberals and conservatives in Pakistan. While religious hardliners like political party Jamaat-e-Islami are committed to protecting what they perceive as being divine rules, many civil society organisations and womens’s organisations have struggled to pressure successive governments to repeal them.