ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's president amended an Islamic law Friday that would allow hundreds of women facing charges for adultery and other minor crimes to be freed on bail.
The much-awaited amendment by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would free 1,300 women facing various charges until their trial, the minister for women's affairs, Sumaira Malik, told journalists.
"President Musharraf has taken a bold decision to protect the rights of women and save them from the misuse of Islamic laws," said Malik.
The president, a moderate, has sought to reform Islamic laws on blasphemy and women's rights in the past but backed off because of strong opposition in deeply conservative Pakistan.
Friday's amendment is the president's first to the Hadood Ordinance, legislation based on the Koran and Islamic tradition.
Since the ordinance was introduced in 1979 by the late dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan has had two parallel and sometimes overlapping legal systems: one based on British common law and another based on Islamic law.
Under the ordinance, women can be sentenced to death by stoning if found guilty of having sex outside of marriage. Drinking is punishable with 80 lashes, theft with the amputation of the right hand.
However, such punishments have not been carried out in Pakistan as courts from the Islamic and ordinary legal systems overturn each others' decisions in unresolved jurisdictional battles.
Malik did not distribute copies of the amendment, which she described as "a great step by the government, "and only said Musharraf had signed it.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf overthrew in a 1999 coup, made an unsuccessful bid to base the nation's entire legal system on the precepts of Islam.
Human rights groups say the Hadood Ordinance makes rape prosecutions almost impossible because under the laws, the victim must produce four male Muslim witnesses in court to prove the charge.
Friday's amendment only covers women in jail awaiting trial.