Pakistan's Senate overcame opposition from hardline Muslim lawmakers and amended its rape law on Thursday to make it easier to prosecute sexual assault cases.

Human rights activists have long condemned the rape law for punishing — instead of protecting — rape victims while providing legal safeguards for their attackers. The legislation, known as the Protection of Women Bill, comes amid efforts by Islamabad to soften the country's hard-line Islamic image and appease moderates and human rights groups who opposed the law.

The amended law would drop the death penalty for people found to have had sex outside of marriage, though they still would be subject to a five-year prison term or $165 fine.

Judges also will be able to choose whether to try a rape case in a criminal court or Islamic court which should make it easier convict rapists.

Under the current Hudood Ordinance, rape victims could only raise a case in the Islamic court. It requires testimony from four witnesses, making a trial of an alleged rapist almost impossible.

"The approval of the bill by the Senate is a great thing," Mehnaz Rafi, a female lawmaker who worked for 27 years to change the law. "Today, the Senate gave protection and justice to women."

The proposal passed in a voice vote in the government-controlled Senate a week after clearing the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said.

The bill now goes before President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is expected to sign it into law as a major test of the leader's push to introduce "enlightened moderation" to this Islamic nation.

Musharraf — a moderate — has been a strong supporter of changing sections of the rape laws.

International and local calls for change intensified after the 2002 gang-rape of a woman, Mukhtar Mai, who was assaulted after a tribal council in her eastern Punjab village ordered the rape as punishment for her 13-year-old brother's alleged affair with a woman of a higher caste.

But hundreds of opposition supporters have rallied against amending the old laws, which were introduced by late President Gen. Zia ul-Haq to make Pakistani legislation more Islamic.

On Wednesday, opposition leader Senator Khurshid Ahmed, from the religious coalition, condemned the bill as "an attempt to promote an alien culture and secularism in Pakistan."

Discussions on the new bill broke down in September after the government failed to win support from opposition Islamic groups, particularly for abolishing the need for four witnesses to a rape.

In a compromise, the government proposed the clause allowing a judge to try cases in either a criminal court or in an Islamic court.