ISLAMABAD, Nov 22: Religious parties in the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) poured scorn on a new women’s rights bill at the start of a Senate debate on the draft on Wednesday, some Senators calling it "a revolt against God".

The treasury benches too came out with a vehement defence of the Protection of the Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill after allowing the critics a free hand to vent out their anger in what would be a much longer debate than was held in the National Assembly last week and would continue on Thursday.

The bill, seeking to protect women from the misuse of 27-year-old controversial Hudood decrees to punish sex outside wedlock, was passed by the National Assembly on Nov 15 and must be adopted by the Senate as well to become law -- a certainty in view of the comfortable majority of the ruling coalition and support from a major opposition party.

MMA’s Prof Khurshid Ahmed opened the debate and made the longest speech of the day, calling the bill an attempt to change the Islamic Hadd punishments which, he said, was “not only a sin but a rebellion against God”.

He said the new law would harm rather than doing any good to women’s rights and accused President Pervez Musharraf of thrusting it on the ruling party as part of a ‘Western agenda’ against Islam.

The defence of the bill came from leader of the house Wasim Sajjad, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afgan Khan Niazi and Minister of State for Law and Justice Shahid Akram Bhinder, all of whom said the new law was necessary to protect women from wrongs done by the two 1979 Hudood ordinances about Zina (adultery and rape) and Qazf (false allegation of Zina) and that it conformed with the Islamic injunctions. They rejected MMA’s arguments that it was contrary to the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

The debate, to be continued when the house meets again at 10am on Thursday, was mainly a contest between the MMA and the ruling coalition while no Senator spoke from the People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP).

Only Senator Sajid Mir of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is part of the PPP-led Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and the Democratic Alliance of non-religious parties in the Senate, spoke against the bill, describing it as “part of an overall strategy” to turn the coast from Gwadar to Karachi into ‘pleasure houses’.

Mr Wasim Sajjad called the bill a product of ‘a new thinking’ about how to run the country in accordance with Islam in the present circumstances and said that he could say it with certainty that it protected “our religious and moral values”.

He acknowledged that women’s difficulties would not be over with the present bill which, he said, was only the first link of a chain to be followed by more legislation for their welfare.

Mr Niazi said prior examination of witnesses for entertaining a charge of fornication, as stipulated in the bill, was in accordance with the practice of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in dealing with such cases and pointed out that the provision about fornication was inserted on the recommendation of a committee of religious scholars, including MMA nominees.

But some MMA senators said they objected to what they called a difficult procedure prescribed for making fornication complaints.

Mr Bhinder, who wound up the day’s debate spanning two sittings in the morning and evening, said the new law was necessitated to end a controversy over the 1979 ordinances enforced by the then military ruler General Mohammad Ziaul Haq and that it was framed in light of a Federal Shariat Court judgement in 1989, views of the Islamic International University in Islamabad and other consultations.

He accused the MMA of misleading the nation after running away from consultations in a National Assembly select committee that it had boycotted before the body amended the original draft of the bill and then walking out of the lower house when it passed the draft on Nov 15.

MINING AT SAINDAK: Earlier, Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Amanullah Jadoon denied any excessive mining at the Saindak copper and gold mine in Balochistan province while opposing an adjournment motion of Senator Abdul Rahim Mandokhel of the Pashtunkhawa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) seeking a debate on the issue.

The minister said operations at the Chinese-run project were going on according to its design and being monitored by various federal and provincial agencies.

However, Mr Jadoon and Mr Niazi said a debate on the issue could be held if the PKMAP Senator changed the text of his motion and raised it another form rather than an adjournment motion.

Chairman Mohammedmian Soomro deferred consideration of a privilege motion filed by Awami National Party president Asfandyar Wali that accused authorities of preventing him from visiting a madressah in the Bajaur tribal area where a military missile strike on Oct 30 killed 83 people. The opposition parties are also seeking a debate on the strike.

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