Pakistan's lower house of Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill giving greater rights to women by amending the country's strict Islamic laws on rape, but human rights groups called for the laws to be scrapped altogether.

Key changes include dropping punishments of death or flogging for those convicted of having consensual sex outside marriage, said a parliamentary official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Under the amendments, the crime is now punishable by five years in jail or a 10,000 rupees (US$165) fine, the official said.

Parliament also gave judges the discretion to decide whether to try a rape case in either a secular criminal or Islamic court, a move that prompted Islamist lawmakers to storm out of the chamber in anger. Strict Islamic laws dictate that a woman who claims rape must produce four witnesses in court, making a trial of the alleged rapist almost impossible because such attacks rarely happen in public.

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Pakistan's government hoped passage of the Protection of Women Bill — which aimed at amending existing legislation called the Hudood Ordinance — would allay concerns that fundamentalism is on the rise in Pakistan.

President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly called for the country to be a moderate Muslim nation that respects the rights of women and religious minorities.

The bill will now move to the government-controlled Senate were it is likely to pass. No date has been set.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the National Assembly that the adoption of the bill marked "a historic day" for the country.

"Nothing is against Islam in this bill," Aziz said, adding that the amendments were made in consultation with Islamic scholars, lawmakers and human rights activists.

Human Rights Watch said it was disappointed that the Pakistani government did not repeal the contentious law, which it claimed failed to recognize marital rape.

"Human Rights Watch has stated that Hudood Ordinance should be repealed in totality," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher at group. "The Pakistani government today has failed to do that. It has failed to remove provisions criminalizing adultery from the books."

Hasan welcomed "partial relief provided to victims" by repealing the death sentence for adultery, but he remained disappointed that sex outside of marriage remains an offense "characterized as lewdness."

"The Pakistani government remains in violation of its international obligations on ending discrimination against women," Hasan said.

Parliamentary discussion on the bill broke down in September, after the government failed to muster support of opposition Islamic groups.

After intense criticism by Islamic fundamentalists who claimed dropping the four witness demand was un-Islamic, the government in September floated a clause letting a judge decide whether the case should be tried by a criminal or Islamic court, where four witnesses are required.

The bill also takes away the right of police to detain people it suspects of having extramarital sex. Under the bill, a complainant must make an accusation of extramarital sex directly to a criminal courtwhich will then have the authority to investigate the allegation.

Former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq introduced the Hudood Ordinance in 1979 in an attempt to make Pakistan's secular laws more Islamic.

Human Rights Watch has condemned the laws for making rape victims liable to prosecution and leading to thousands of women being imprisoned for so-called "honor" crimes.