By Robert Birsel
ISLAMABAD, Sep 12 (Reuters) Pakistani women's activists today deplored a government decision to give in to religious conservatives opposed to the amendment of Islamic laws dealing with rape and adultery.
The laws, which make a rape victim liable to prosecution for adultery if she can not produce four male witnesses, were introduced in 1979 by military ruler Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and have drawn widespread criticism both at home and abroad.
Human rights campaigners have long pressed for the repeal of the laws, known as the Hudood Ordinances, but nevertheless welcomed government efforts to amend them, including taking rape out of the sphere of religious law.
But an opposition alliance of religious parties objected to the changes, saying they were a danger to society, and threatened to withdraw from the national and provincial parliaments if they were passed.
In the face of the protests, the government said yesterday it was accepting three of the conservatives' demands, including one keeping rape under the Islamic law, although it will also be a crime under the penal code.
The government also accepted adultery being made a crime under the penal code, subject to up to five years in prison.
It has also agreed to a catch-all clause stating injunctions in the Koran and Sunnah, the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, would have effect ''notwithstanding anything contained in any other law''.
Rights activists said the concessions would water down the impact of the changes and would be confusing, with rape and adultery being crimes under both Islamic law and the penal code.
Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the clause relating to injunctions in the Koran and Sunnah was open-ended and could make the amended law more severe than the original.
''Last night was the nail in the coffin,'' Jahangir said.
''The amendment made yesterday would be worse than the present draft ... It has the potential of making it far worse not better, it's open-ended.'' ''They have hoodwinked women into believing that this is a law for the protection of women. It is a law for the protection of religious extremists,'' she said.
A draft of the new amendment bill is due to be presented to parliament on Wednesday.
''PLACATING THE MULLAHS'' Controversy over the laws reflects divisions in Pakistani society where a small class of urban liberals is often at odds with conservative, religious groups.
President Pervez Musharraf, who promotes an ideology of ''enlightened moderation'', had earlier assured rights activists he would back any moves to amend or repeal the laws.
But rights workers accused the government of pandering to the religious parties.
''The government is trying its best to placate the mullahs,'' said I.A. Rehman, director of the HRCP, referring to Muslim preachers.
Memona Rauf Khan of the Women's Action Forum said the effort to amend the laws had come at a bad time for the government, which perhaps explained why it had given way.
The fractious opposition united last month to mount an unsuccessful no-confidence challenge and the killing of a rebel leader in Baluchistan province by security forces was widely condemned.
''They might have been stronger if they had not done that,'' Khan said.
Musharraf left yesterday for visits to Europe and the United States where he is bound to face questions about the plight of women in his overwhelmingly Muslim country.
REUTERS SAM RS1711