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Pakistan Bid to End Abuse of Women Reporting Rape Hits Snag

The Pakistani government has run into difficulties in its efforts to pass a law to end the worst abuses suffered by women who report rape or are accused of adultery under an Islamic ordinance. The opposition comes from members of the governing coalition, as well as from Islamic parties.

President Pervez Musharraf has sought to use the measure, the Women's Protection Bill, to burnish his credentials as a modern and moderate Islamic leader before his visit to the United States this month. But the opposition has, temporarily at least, disrupted his well-orchestrated campaign.

A vote on the bill was postponed Wednesday, as senior clerics representing the government and the Islamic opposition parties failed to resolve differences. At least one partner in the governing coalition said it would refuse to accept any amendments being demanded by a coalition of religious parties, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal.

Under the Hudood Ordinance, enacted in 1979 by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, then the president, thousands of women, in particular the poor and illiterate, have been jailed for adultery on the flimsiest evidence, often when a former husband refuses to recognize a divorce, or even when a woman has reported being raped.

Muhammad Ali Durrani, the information minister, said that the government could win the vote, but that it preferred to try to bring the Islamic parties on board. ''We are not under pressure,'' he said, at a news briefing. ''We have the majority. We can take it through any day.''

General Musharraf's administration has taken great pains over the bill, consulting clerics and raising public awareness with newspaper advertisements, as a private television station, GEO, also broadcast the issue. Although the draft bill does not satisfy the demand from women's groups to repeal the Hudood Ordinance, the draft has been praised for its thoroughness and intelligent approach to curb the main abuses.

The government's original proposal would remove rape from the jurisdiction of Islamic law, which covers matters like marriage and divorce, and make it a crime punishable under Pakistan's penal code. The accusers in adultery cases would have to appear before a court, rather than just report the case to the local police. The draft also raised the age of consent to 16 and stated that four adult witnesses were required to prove adultery, rather than the traditional four male witnesses.

But under a compromise struck this week between clerics from the government side and the religious alliance, women who had been raped would remain subject to the same punishments as those accused of adultery, though a judge could choose to use the secular penal code instead of the Islamic ordinance if evidence and circumstances for doing so were available, local news media reported. Another proposal was to introduce a new category into the Pakistan Penal Code criminalizing ''lewdness,'' including consensual sexual relations. Critics said this would pave the way for religious policing and become a tool to harass innocent citizens.

Advocates for women's rights accused the government of capitulating to the religious parties and said the changes in the bill would only cause further injustice and exploitation.

At a news briefing in Islamabad on Wednesday, representatives of the rights groups strongly condemned what they described as ''politicking over the Hudood Ordinance.''

''The government wants to present a liberal face to the West, but we feel all steps taken by the government are politically motivated and it is not serious,'' said Farzana Bari, from Pattan, an organization based in Islamabad that is concerned with social work and women's rights. ''Rather than entering into a debate, this Hudood Ordinance should be repealed.''

Nasreen Azhar of another rights group, Action Aid, said the bill should be a ''first step, but not the end.''

Some lawmakers are accusing General Musharraf of trying to push the bill through before his trip to the United States and pandering to Western values. ''He is pushing himself as a liberal moderate, despite being a military dictator,'' said Imran Khan, the former cricket star who is a member of Parliament.

The religious coalition has opposed any changes to the Hudood Ordinance, and refused to participate in an all-party select committee on the issue. Early this month, the alliance threatened to resign from the government coalitions in two provincial assemblies. That rattled the government, in particular because one of the provinces, Baluchistan, has been in turmoil since the death of a tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in August at the hands of the army, Mr. Khan, said.

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