Rape Remarks Stain Musharraf's Reputation


By MATTHEW PENNINGTON, Associated Press Writer Sat Sep 24,12:25 PM ET

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Leader in the war on terror, survivor of al-Qaida assassination attempts, advocate of moderate Islam: Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has emerged as a darling of the West since the Sept. 11 attacks.

(Gold9472: Hmmmm... I wonder why...)

He has won little praise, however, for his response to another blight facing his country: rape and other violence against women.

Hundreds of attacks — including gang rapes, "honor killings" of wives accused of having affairs and brides murdered for marrying without family consent — are reported each year. Most go unpunished.

In two recent cases, two men killed their sister and her suspected lover by slitting their throats, while another man beat his sister to death for refusing an arranged marriage. Both killings happened Friday near the eastern city of Multan and were announced by local police.

This week, Musharraf returned from a U.S. visit marred by controversy over his reportedly telling The Washington Post that many Pakistanis see rape allegations as a way for women to make money and get visas to leave the country. He later denied saying that, but the newspaper said the recorded interview proved he was correctly quoted.

During his trip, the military leader also said Pakistan is unfairly censured over rape and denounced activists he claimed profit from making such accusations "to malign Pakistan, the government and me."

Rights workers retort he is more concerned about shielding the nation's reputation overseas than taking action at home.

"Violence against women is a universal problem," said Kamila Hyat, co-director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "Many governments have taken serious steps to deal with it. Pakistan hasn't."

She called Musharraf's reported comments "insensitive and rather pointless."

"There are thousands of victims of rape in Pakistan," she said, "and as far as I know, none went abroad" other than a doctor who claimed she was raped by a military officer. The government paid for her to migrate to Canada.

Another rape victim, Mukhtar Mai, barred by Musharraf from traveling to the United States to speak to a rights group earlier this year until Washington protested, said the government's campaign to tackle violence against women "seems limited to talk."

"Violence against women can end only when the culprits get punished," Mai, 36, said by phone from her village in eastern Punjab province. Her attackers' convictions were overturned on appeal and the Supreme Court now has the case.

Musharraf, who advocates his own philosophy of "enlightened moderation" to tackle Islamic extremism, has repeatedly condemned violence against women. But like preceding governments he has failed to reform a harsh penal code introduced during a 1979 drive by dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq to Islamize the legal system.

The laws, known as the Hudood Ordinance, make it extremely difficult to prosecute rape cases and leaves victims vulnerable to adultery charges.

The ordinance is "like a sword hanging over the heads of the women of Pakistan," said Shahnaz Bokhari of the Progressive Women's Association, which helps victims of violence. According to the government, about 80 percent of the more than 2,000 women jailed in Pakistan were convicted under the ordinance.

The only sure ways to obtain a rape conviction are with a confession by the accused or the testimony of four adult Muslim men who witnessed the assault. A woman's testimony carries half the weight of a man's.

Human Rights Watch said that when the ordinance was first issued, it was common for the victim to be prosecuted for illicit consensual sex — punishable with a long prison sentence. The maximum penalty of death by stoning has very rarely, if ever, been used.

Although such cases became less frequent by the late 1990s, "gender bias in the criminal justice system makes it extraordinarily difficult for rape victims to get justice," a problem that the New York-based rights group said is compounded by police corruption and incompetence.

National commissions set up by Pakistan's government in 1997 and 2002 recommended the legislation be repealed. The government has yet to act on the recommendation.

Still, there is growing public awareness, largely thanks to victims coming forward and attracting attention from media and authorities. The government has already set up 10 shelters for female victims of violence and plans to set up 10 more in the coming year.

Sarfraz Ahmed Syed, joint secretary of the Ministry of Women Development, noted a decrease in rape cases registered with police: 1,163 in the first seven months of 2005, down from 1,331 in 2004.

But Hyat said only a "small percentage" of assaults are reported to police.

Arrests were made in only about 15 percent of rape cases recorded by the human rights commission in 2004, which also reported hundreds of honor killings and scores of other violence against women, including amputations, electric shocks and burnings.