Woman sentenced to death by stoning

Human rights groups are trying to save a Pakistani woman sentenced to death by stoning. Zafran Bibi was found guilty of adultery and sentenced by a local court under the 1979 hudud ordinance, or Islamic laws, lawyers and activists told IRIN. The woman says she was a raped.

"We have moved her case to the National Commission on the Status of Women," said Shahnaz Ahmed, head of the Aurat Foundation NGO, which promotes legal rights for the women of Pakistan. The commission is the highest government body set up to protect and promote women's rights.

Bibi's lawyer, Sardar Ali, told IRIN from the northwestern city of Kohat in the North West Frontier Province that an appeal had been filed with Pakistan's Federal Shariat Court on Monday against last week's judgement. Adultery is a serious offence under the hudud ordinance, instituted by the former military ruler, the late Gen Muhammad Ziaul Haq.

"We have a right to appeal, and we have sent it to the Shariat Court on Monday," Ali said. Shariat, or Islamic, courts try cases falling under the hudud ordinance. They operate in parallel with Pakistan's ordinary criminal courts, which follow British laws.

Human rights activists say the hudud laws discriminate against women. They point out that of the 2,000 women in jails throughout Pakistan, most are either awaiting trial or have been convicted under the hudud ordinance. Many of them, like Bibi, say they had gone for legal help after being raped, but under Pakistan's discriminatory legal code found themselves accused of adultery instead.

"Under the hudud laws, the responsibility of proving a rape rests on the victim," the chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Afrasiab Khattak, told IRIN. "In case she gets pregnant and is unable to prove that she was raped, a woman can be sentenced to death by stoning," he said. He added, however, that this punishment had never yet been carried out in Pakistan.

"This is a typical case of abuse under the hudud laws," Khattak said, explaining that the HRCP had repeatedly called on different governments to repeal the ordinance. "These are the laws which are promoting extremism in society," he noted.

Zilmay Huma, a lawyer working at the Aurat Foundation, told IRIN that they had called for a copy of the judgement to see how to proceed on the case. "What appears so far from press reports is that Zafran Bibi changed her statement during the proceedings. This did not help the case at all," she explained.

Ali said that according to 30-year-old Bibi - a poor illiterate housewife - she was repeatedly raped by a relative, and went to the police to register a complaint. Later on she named a different man as the accused. "This complicated her case," he added.

Bibi, who became pregnant and delivered a baby while in prison, was sentenced, but the two men named by her were exonerated of the charges.

Officials at the Aurat foundation said they were trying to get custody of the baby girl as living conditions on death row in Pakistani prisons were extremely harsh.

Under the draconian hudud ordnance, rape is punishable by hanging, adultery and fornication by stoning to death. Theft and robbery call for amputation of hands or feet. Public drunkenness, and any consumption of alcohol in the case of Muslims, is punishable by flogging. Legal experts say only floggings have been carried out in Pakistan. Some stonings have been reported in rural Pakistan, but not as a punishment ordered any legally recognised court of law.