Rights groups urge Pakistan to suspend Islamic laws

Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistani rights activists called on the government on Sunday to suspend Islamic laws on rape and adultery until controversy over them is settled.

The government is struggling to amend the laws, known as the Hudood Ordinances, which require a rape victim to produce four male witnesses to the crime or risk charges of adultery.

They have been a bone of contention between liberal and religious groups since their introduction in 1979.

"These laws have tarnished the image of Pakistan and our religion and in the last 27 years, a generation of women have been affected by these laws," Naeem Mirza, an official of Aurat (Women) Foundation told a news conference.

"We urge the government to suspend the Hudood Ordinances immediately until parliament repeals or amends them," said Farzana Bari, a rights activist and head of the Gender Study Department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

President Pervez Musharraf, who espouses a philosophy of "enlightened moderation," had called for a review of the laws and the government had drafted an amendment taking rape out of the sphere of religious law and putting it under the penal code.

But the government backtracked last week after Islamists threatened to quit parliament if the laws were changed, and agreed to keep rape both in Islamic and civil law.

"We're extremely shocked and furious that the ruling party is trying to appease the religious parties," Robina Saigol of ActionAid Pakistan group told the news conference.

The government had planned to present the diluted version of its plans in parliament on Wednesday but deferred the move after a key coalition partner as well as rights groups rejected compromise with Islamists.

The controversy over Hudood Ordinances mirrors a long tug-of-war between Pakistani liberals and conservatives over the direction of Pakistani society. While liberals say the Hudood laws discriminate against women, conservatives accuse them of trying to westernize Pakistan.

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 Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, from embarrassment during a visit to the United States next week.

The government is very unlikely to accept the rights groups' demand to suspend the Hudood laws, as this would infuriate Islamic groups.