Musharraf wants debate on Islamic laws

Traditional Islamic laws that require multiple witnesses to prove a rape case or permit the stoning of adulterers must be put up for debate, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf said on Tuesday.

Addressing a summit of first ladies of 17 Asian countries, Musharraf said he was aware the "Hudood Ordinances" introduced during the Islamic dictatorship of the late General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 were a "very touchy and thorny issue".

"But there is no doubt in my mind that it should be open to any debate," he said. "Why should we shy away from even discussing it?"

Appealing to Pakistani men to be "chivalrous", he added: "We must discuss it."

Powerful Islamic groups have vowed to resist attempts to change the laws opposed by secular political parties and civil rights and women's groups, who say rape and other violent crimes against women have soared since they were passed.

One of the most controversial provisions of the laws states that a woman must have four pious male Muslim witnesses to prove a rape, or face a charge of adultery herself. Men and women found guilty of adultery face stoning to death or 100 lashes.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says the incidence of rape could be higher than the one every two hours reported in the local media.

But the HRCP estimates only a tiny percentage of cases ever go to court either because of the difficulty in proving a crime under Hudood Laws, the social stigma attached to rape, or the use of force by influential people to cover up such incidents.

Of the cases that do reach a lower court, fewer than half lead to prosecution, said commission member Afrasiab Khattack.

"Because of the strict requirement of evidence in Hudood cases, it is very rare that the accused gets convicted," said Naheeda Mehboob Elahi, a women's rights activist and secretary general of the Human Rights Society of Pakistan.

Musharraf stopped short of endorsing a government-appointed commission's recommendations for repeal of the laws, but looked to be preparing the ground for such a move by urging a debate.

Musharraf, who has taken a tough stance against Islamic militants since taking power in a 1999 coup, said there was a need to examine what Islam's holy book, the Koran, and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, said on the issue.

"The question is of correct interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah," he said.

The National Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by a former judge, recommended in September that the ordinances be repealed, but parliament has yet to take up the issue.

Successive governments have failed to change the ordinances given stiff opposition from Islamist groups, traditional allies of the military which Musharraf heads.

In his speech, Musharraf also urged Pakistanis to change their attitude towards honour killings, in which male relatives kill women deemed to have offended family honour by marrying without consent or bringing an inadequate dowry.

Musharraf said people in authority who were supposed to deal with the issue had a "negative mindset".

"I would like to urge these people, urge the population of Pakistan, all those who are in a position of authority to try cases, appear as witnesses, to deal with these cases," he said.

Musharraf said it was important for Pakistanis to demonstrate civilised behaviour, "to show we are a tolerant, progressive, educated society".