Pakistan stoning exercises

Musharraf practices the constant balancing act

President Musharraf is helping the West fight terrorism and wants to introduce a moderate democracy. But he also comes to terms with the Islamists. An unpredictable combination.

On July 19, the Pakistani government ordered the release of 1,300 suspected criminals. It was not warriors of God who slipped through the web of justice, but 1,300 women, including girls up to twelve years old, most of them after years of pre-trial detention. Their crime: fornication or adultery. Practically all of them - and this includes another 5,000 women in Pakistani dungeons - were and are in custody for the 1979 Adultery Act, which has gained notoriety as the "Hadud Ordinance".

The adultery law allows rape to be declared adultery or fornication and thus to make the victim an accomplice. If she fails to bring four pious male Muslims to bear as witnesses, she faces conviction. Rape has since become a frequent means of violence in clan disputes. A famous example is Mukhtaran Mai, who was raped in a field in June 2002 by five men from a rival village clan. When she filed a lawsuit and couldn't find any witnesses, she was convicted of fornication with men. Adultery is punished by death by stoning. Mukhtaran Mai was acquitted by the Supreme Court and no woman has been sentenced to date. But tens of thousands were imprisoned for years and then socially ostracized.

President Musharraf finally wants to change this law. A draft has been submitted to parliament that restores the presumption of innocence to the victim and instead obliges the accused to present four witnesses for the defense. For Musharraf, the reform is a prestige project with which he wants to prove to the world that he leads a regime of enlightened moderation that is not afraid to combat extremism of any kind. It is fortunate for Musharraf that the parliamentary debate coincides with the arrests of suspected masterminds of the recent London terrorist plot, on which cooperation with Pakistani authorities proved crucial. Both of these strengthen Musharraf's position as a reliable ally in the war on terrorism and religious extremism.

The reform of the adultery law serves a further domestic political purpose. On August 23, the Muttahida Majlis e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of Islamist parties, and the laicist Peoples Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto want to put the government in trouble with a joint motion of no confidence in parliament. The Hadud reform bill can break the opposition alliance. The PPP, which has been fighting the adultery ordinance for 25 years, suddenly finds itself on the side of the government. The MMA, on the other hand, recognizes the reform as a further step in the “de-Islamization of Pakistan” and strictly rejects any change. Musharraf hopes the two opposition groups will get into such a quarrel over the issue that the vote of no confidence will fail.

Many representatives of Pakistani civil society do not trust Musharraf's commitment to moderation and describe the Hadud reform as opportunism. "He wanted to abolish the Hadud ordinances back in 2001," says women's rights activist Farzana Bari. "We have waited in vain for five years." Musharraf had failed to make his promise out of consideration for the Islamists; Depending on the political requirements, he alternates between playing the reform card or accommodating the Islamists, says Bari.

Pakistanis agree that Musharraf is doing a tightrope act. "He created a society," says journalist Fareeha Rafique, "which is being dragged in two directions: religious extremism and westernization." The question is whether this double game will not help the Islamists in the long term. Bari mentions the MMA, which Musharraf secretly instigated before the 2002 elections. The coalition of several mutually hostile Islamist parties should prevent the two mainstream parties, the PPP and the Muslim League (PML), from returning to power. Musharraf also managed to split the PML and poach many MPs from the PPP.

Mukhtar Ahmad Ali from the Center for Peace and Development Initiatives in Islamabad believes that Musharraf has inflicted damage to democracy with his intrigues and "cleared the path to power for the Islamists". In Balochistan and in the border province in the northwest, the MMA is now part of the provincial government. It allows initiatives such as promoting the education of girls to be nipped in the bud with the murder of teachers.

Corruption has also spread because defectors and members of the ruling party are paying for their loyalty. They are now showing that they do not always allow themselves to be harnessed to Musharraf's car with the Hadud reform: A majority of the ruling party is against the change in the law. She fears that the Islamists will profit from this in the 2007 parliamentary elections.