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Afghan president orders review of marital law

Sunday, April 5, 2009

KABUL -- The Afghan president said Saturday he had ordered a review of a new law that critics say makes it legal for men to rape their wives, responding to criticism from around the world that included sharp comments from President Barack Obama.

The law, signed by President Hamid Karzai last month, is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan's Shiite community, which makes up 10 percent to 20 percent of the country's 30 million people. Under one article legislating the frequency of sexual relations between Shiite husbands and wives, husbands have the right to sex every fourth night unless the wife is ill.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women has said the law "legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband."

Asked about the law at a news conference Saturday following the NATO conference in Strasbourg, France, Obama described it as "abhorrent." He said the U.S. is communicating its views to the Karzai government.

"We think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture but we also think that there are certain basic principles that all nations should uphold, and respect for women and respect for their freedom and integrity is an important principle," Obama said.

Even before Obama's comments, Karzai said he ordered the Justice Ministry to review the law, and if anything in it contravenes the country's constitution or Shariah law, "measures will be taken."

The issue of women's rights is a source of tension between the country's conservative establishment and more liberal members of society. The Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 banned women from appearing in public without a body-covering burqa and a male escort from her family.

Now, millions of girls attend school and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women.

But in the staunchly conservative country, critics fear those gains could easily be reversed. Fawzia Kufi, a lawmaker who opposed the legislation, said this week that the law undermines all advances for Afghan women in the last seven years.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has criticized the law, offered qualified praise for Karzai's decision to review it.

"There is going to remain enormous pressure on the government of Afghanistan on this question," he said in Strasbourg.

Karzai did not mention the controversial article on Saturday but said at a news conference he had studied the law earlier in the day and that "I don't see any problems with it."

He complained that Western media outlets had mistranslated it. He read an article of the law during the news conference that appears to restrict Shiite women's right to leave their homes, though Karzai underscored a provision that allows women to leave in emergencies.

Still, he said the law should be reviewed in consultation with scholars and religious leaders.

"I ordered the justice minister to review the law, and if there is anything that would contravene the country's constitution or Shariah law or the freedom our constitution gives to Afghan women, without any doubt there will be changes in it, and again it will be sent to the parliament of Afghanistan," he said. "Measures will be taken."

Critics have accused Karzai of signing the law to court Shiite votes in the country's August presidential election.

In the latest Afghan violence, a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Saturday killed a service member from the NATO-led force. No other details, including the service member's nationality, were released.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said that coalition and Afghan forces killed 35 militants during a series of operations in the Kajaki region of Helmand province on Friday and Saturday.

The fighting was the latest in a string of battles in Kajaki, a region controlled by militants that produces much of Afghanistan's illegal opium poppies, the main ingredient of heroin.

The U.S. said fighting around Kajaki on Wednesday killed 20 militants, and fighting there on Tuesday killed 31 militants.

U.S. commanders have said they expect violence in Afghanistan to spike this year as 21,000 new U.S. forces arrive in the country to battle an increasingly bloody Taliban insurgency. The U.S. already has a record 38,000 troops in the country. Obama has promised to increase the U.S. focus on Afghanistan as he draws down troops from Iraq.


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