April 26, 2009 / 3:56 PM / 10 years ago

Karzai signed law not knowing contents: campaigners

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai told women activists Sunday he had signed a law that caused an international outcry over its effect on women’s rights because he had not read it properly, the activists said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens to a question during a news conference in Kabul April 8, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Karzai has ordered the Justice Ministry to review the Shi’ite Personal Status Law, which he signed two months ago.

The law, which applies to a Shi’ite Muslim community that makes up about 15 percent of the population, requires women to satisfy their husbands’ sexual desires, which some critics say could be used to justify marital rape.

It sparked an outcry from leaders of Western countries with troops in Afghanistan, including U.S. President Barack Obama who called it “abhorrent.” A group of 30 women parliamentarians and rights advocates met Karzai Sunday to discuss it.

“Karzai told us ‘When the law was signed, I was not aware of the articles. I became aware later that some of the articles were unacceptable’,” said Fatima Hosseini, a rights campaigner.

Female lawmaker Shinkai Karokhel quoted Karzai as saying he only later learnt of articles affecting women through media reports when he was attending a U.N. conference at The Hague.

“He said to us ‘I’m sorry, I did not know all the contents of the law’ ... He admitted he did not read it properly,” she said, adding that he said he initially thought the reports were coming from journalists only interested in pressuring him.

The passages that caused outrage are buried in the 239-page law, much of which is written in complicated Islamic theological language.

Some lawmakers have accused Karzai of signing it hastily because he faces an election on August 20 and wants to curry favor with Shi’ite voters, who can swing the contest.

Karokhel, who has been campaigning against the law since it was first introduced to parliament three months ago, said Karzai promised to complete the review of the law before the presidential election.

Karzai could find it difficult to scupper the law without offending powerful Shi’ites. In a statement, Karzai’s office said the women had agreed with the law in principle but wanted assurances that parts of it would be reviewed and made compatible with the country’s civil law and constitution.

“We will insist on our struggle and we will contact the Ministry of Justice within a month to see if the process of amendment is continuing,” Karokhel said.

Reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Diana Abdallah

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