ISLAMABAD, Nov 15: The government rushed a signal women's rights bill through the National Assembly on Wednesday amid a boycott by religious parties and some drama after the draft survived a prolonged controversy and an apparent last-minute intrigue.
Slogan-chanting members of the Muttahida Majlis-Amal (MMA) walked out of the house in protest before the vote on the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Rights Bill, which they said was contrary to Islamic injunctions about punishments for zina (adultery and rape). But, they appeared wavering in carrying out an earlier threat to resign from parliament.
The People's Party Parliamentarians (PPP), the main opposition party, gave a rare support to the ruling coalition in passing the bill, which seeks to protect women from the widely complained misuse of the controversial Hudood ordinances about zina (adultery and rape) and qazf (false accusation of zina) enforced in 1979 by the then-military ruler General Mohammad Ziaul Haq.
Members of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, a PPP ally in the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, spoke with the MMA against the bill but abstained from the walkout as well as the voice vote, which had no shouts of `no’ after the MMA stormed out unconvinced by a low-key government-sponsored amendment to the draft that was approved by a special house select committee in September but put off by a controversy over whether it conformed to the Quran and Sunnah.
Government spokesmen had earlier said the bill, taken up on Wednesday about two months after it was put on ice because of the controversy, would be passed by Friday. But the ruling coalition, led by the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), decided to finish the job in one day after President Pervez Musharraf apparently gave a pep talk to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and other party leaders at a dinner meeting on Tuesday night.
In what looked another attempt to ditch the bill, opposition leader and MMA secretary-general Maulana Fazlur Rehman called for postponing the vote after his denunciation of the bill as a `shameful’ attempt to alter the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah and to turn "Pakistan into a free sex zone" failed to cut any ice with the ruling coalition and met with strong rebuttals from Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afgan Khan Niazi, Law and Justice Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar and PPP's Sherry Rahman.
The treasury benches ignored Maulana Fazl's plea to wait for "direct contact" with the ulema outside the house for reaching a consensus, after which he led the walkout by MMA members who continued chanting "go Musharraf go", "whoever is a friend of America is a traitor to the country" and "the bill opposed to Quran and Sunnah is unacceptable" for some time before actually going out of the house.
"We will see if this house and our presence in this house is of any use," he said in the last of three speeches he made on the bill, but gave little indication if the MMA would carry out its threat to resign from its 65 seats in the National Assembly and withdraw from the PML-led government in Balochistan if the bill were to be passed in the present shape.
The assembly session, which began on Nov 10, was originally expected to last 10 days, was prorogued immediately after Wednesday's vote, at the completion of the fourth parliamentary year of the 342-seat house.
The bill, which must also be passed by the Senate to become law, envisages a major relief by transferring the offence of zina-bil-jabr, or rape, from the 1979 Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) to spare a woman an automatic prosecution on the basis of assumed confession if she is unable to prove her charge of rape against a man by producing four witnesses of the crime.
Rape will be punishable with 10 to 25 years of imprisonment but with death or life imprisonment if committed by two or more persons together, while adultery under the Hudood ordinance is punishable with stoning to death.
To check abuse of this ordinance and the Offence of Qazf (Enforcement of Hadd) Ordinance often aimed at settling vendettas and deny women basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, the new bill amends the Criminal Procedure Code to provide that only a sessions court may take cognizance of such a case after receiving a complaint.
The offence has been made bailable so the accused do not languish in jails during trial. Police will have no authority to arrest any one in such cases without a sessions court’s directive, which can be issued only to compel attendance in court or in the event of a conviction.
The new amendment moved on Wednesday by the law and justice minister provided for an imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of Rs10,000 for the offence of fornication, or consensual sex of the unmarried.
But in what an opposition source called a `firewall’ built around it, the amendment provides for a similar punishment for an accuser failing to prove the charge and bars converting zina and rape cases under other laws into fornication complaints at any stage.
The provision about fornication, which the amendment originally described as `lewdness’, was one of the three recommendations made for inclusion in the bill in an agreement that PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi reached with the committee of ulema in September.
The two other recommendations of that agreement not incorporated in the bill had called for making an offence of rape liable to hadd if it met the required criterion of evidence and that the Quran and Sunnah "shall have effect notwithstanding anything contained in any other law " in interpreting and applying the Zina Ordinance.
An MMA committee had at the time rejected these recommendations as insufficient, but Maulana Fazl said on Wednesday the bill would have been acceptable if it had contained the ulema committee’s proposals.
"The draft presented today is neither one made by the select committee nor one proposed by the ulema committee," he said referring to the amendment about fornication that had not yet been moved although the bill until then was the same as approved by the select committee that included the PPP but was boycotted by the MMA and PML-N.
"Neither supporters (of the bill) know what they are supporting nor opponents know what they are opposing," the MMA leader said when called for more consultations with the ulema to remove what he called a prevailing confusion.
Sherry Rehman said PPP's support for the bill was for removing some of the injustices suffered by women although the party wanted a total repeal of all four of Gen Zia’s Hudood decrees but could not do it during its two ruling stints because it lacked the required numbers in parliament.
The other two decrees prescribed amputation of hands for theft and flogging for drinking.