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Didn't read new rape law, Karzai admits

Afghan President says he will amend controversial legislation to conform to human-rights standards

Globe and Mail Update

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — President Hamid Karzai did not know he was signing a law that would allow men to demand sex from their wives when he put his signature on Afghanistan's new Shiite Personal Status legislation, he told a group of critics yesterday in Kabul.

Mr. Karzai explained to the largely female group that he relies on aides to review most documents he signs and did not read the law, which also limits the conditions under which Shia women can leave the home and requires them to apply makeup when their husbands insist.

“He told us, ‘I was not aware of what I had signed,'“ said Sabrina Saqib, a 28-year-old member of the lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly who attended the meeting. Ms. Saqib helped organize a high-profile women's protest two weeks ago in Kabul aimed at showing disdain for the law, which contravenes international human-rights standards and has sparked outrage around the world.

Backed by a hard-line Muslim cleric, the law was abruptly passed about a month ago outside of the usual parliamentary process. When news spread of its contents – one provision gives men the right to demand sex with their wives every four days, with few exceptions – international stakeholders were stunned. For months prior to passage of the law, family-law experts had been working in Kabul to overhaul Afghanistan's outdated legislation and bring it into line with international human-rights standards. However, none were consulted about the new law, provisions of which originated in a publication for Shiite clerics.

Although opponents of the law inside Afghanistan were slow to make their voices heard, the protest organized by Ms. Saqib and others succeeded in bringing together some 300 women in a country where women do not usually play a public role. The event made international headlines when supporters of the law showed up to counter the women's effort by hurling stones and screaming abuse.

Since then, Ms. Saqib and other activists who attended the protest have been pressing Mr. Karzai for an audience in order to outline their concerns with the law and deliver a slate of proposed amendments. After rescheduling the meeting twice, Ms. Saqib said, Mr. Karzai finally sat down with the group, which included representatives of non-governmental organizations and members of Parliament. During the meeting, Mr. Karzai, who was flanked by several aides and both his Minister of Education, Farooq Wavdak, and his Minister of Justice, Sarwar Danish, assured the group he intends to amend the offending sections of the law to bring it into line with international human-rights standards. He said he will try to do so before the presidential election scheduled for August.

“It looks like the President wants to deal with this issue before the end of his term,” said Zia Moballegh, a senior program officer in Afghanistan with the Canadian-based aid and human-rights group Rights and Democracy. “This is a good step.” But Ms. Saqib said she is skeptical the President will keep his word.

“We're not really sure if he'll keep the promise and bring the amendments, but at least he says he will,” she said, adding: “We're hopeful.”

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