ISLAMABAD: The joint sitting of both houses of parliament on Thursday finally passed two key pro-women bills that have been pending assent for a long time.
The Anti-Honour Killing Laws (Criminal Amendment Bill) 2015 and the Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Amendment Bill) 2015 were originally piloted by PPP legislator Sughra Imam and passed by the Senate in March 2015. However, since they were not taken up by the National Assembly in time, the bills lapsed.
Thereafter, the only way to secure their passage was in a joint sitting of parliament.
Although the bills remained in cold storage for quite some time, parliamentarians were jolted out of their lassitude when a number of horrific incidents of women-burning came to light in quick succession in June; Maria Sadaqat in Murree, Ambreen in Abbottabad and Nazia Hameed in Kasur. These were followed by the shocking honour-killing of social media personality Qandeel Baloch by her own brother.
This series of tragic events reinvigorated efforts for the passage of these bills, but efforts were stalled as the Committee of the Joint Sitting on Bills struggled to win over the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). Both parties were not ready to vote for the proposed laws because they considered them to be against the tenets of Islam, though their primary objections were to the anti-honour killing bill.
Under the new law, if a woman is murdered in the name of honour by a close family member, they will be liable to strict punishment even if they are pardoned by another family member.
Law Minister Zahid Hamid told Dawn that the bills had been unanimously approved by the Committee of the Joint Sitting on Bills.
According to him, the anti-honour killing bill, in principle, directs judges to sentence someone accused of an honour-killing to a life-term in prison, whether the victim’s immediate family forgives the culprit or not.
On Thursday, however, PPP senators Farhatullah Babar, Sherry Rehman and others objected to the watering down of this clause, and asked for honour-killing to be declared a non-compoundable offence.
Mr Babar told the house that when murder was not compoundable under anti-terror laws, meaning that qisas and diyat did not apply, why was it being made an ideological issue for this law?
He termed those opposing the exclusion of qisas and diyat from the honour-killing law as being motivated by “politics and not religion”.
The most significant provision of this bill is the fact that it gives legal cover to the collection and use of DNA evidence to prove that rape has been committed.
This flies in the face of a ruling by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), which had held in 2013 that DNA evidence could not be considered as primary evidence in rape cases, though it could be used as supporting evidence.
“Parliament has asserted its authority over the CII through this law,” Mr Babar told Dawn after the session.
The bill makes amendments to Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) 1860, Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1898 and the Qanun-i-Shahadat Order 1984, some of which are quite ground-breaking.
For example, it holds officers who may sabotage or disregard the investigation to account by stipulating three years in prison, a fine, or both for those who do not pursue an inquiry diligently.
It also increases the punishment for obstruction of such an investigation from three months in prison to one year, and the fine from Rs500 to Rs50,000.
The new law stipulates that anyone who rapes a minor or a mentally or physically disabled person will be liable for the death penalty or life imprisonment.
The same punishment is prescribed if a public servant such as police officer, jailer or medical officer takes advantage of their position to commit rape.
It also declares that trials for offences such as rape and related crimes shall be conducted in-camera and also allows for the use of technology such as video links to record statements of the victim and witnesses, to spare them the humiliation or risk entailed by court appearances.
The media has also been barred from publishing or publicising names or any information that would reveal the identity of a victim, except when publishing court judgements.
Talking about the anti-rape bill, Mr Babar said that the new bill also deletes provisions in the Qanun-i-Shahadat (law of evidence) relating to questioning the character of the rape victim, so that sex workers are not excluded from the law’s protection.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen-Obaid Chinoy, who was one of the voices calling for the swift adopting of these bills, told Dawn their passage was a win for the women of Pakistan.
“This bill is the first step – we need to make sure it is implemented and men are sent to jail for honour-killings. We need to make examples of people so that men begin to understand there is no honour in killing a woman,” she concluded.