Pakistani lawmakers on Wednesday approved a women's rights bill amending harsh Islamic laws on rape and adultery, despite fierce opposition from hardliners who said the change would promote "free sex".
The bill scraps widely criticised laws dating from 1979, which say that women must produce four Muslim male witnesses as evidence of rape or potentially face adultery charges themselves.
The government of relatively moderate President Pervez Musharraf had tried to table the changes on three previous occasions, the last in September, but an outcry from Islamic parties forced it to climb down.
"This law will protect the rights of the women," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the national assembly -- the lower house of parliament -- adding that it conformed with the Koran and other Islamic holy texts.
Lawmakers from fundamentalist Islamic parties delivered fiery speeches then stormed out of the assembly before the vote, shouting anti-government slogans.
"The passage of this bill will turn Pakistan into a free-sex society," said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the opposition and secretary general of the country's biggest alliance of religious parties.
"It will distort the image of Pakistani women internationally."
The notorious "Hudood Laws" were introduced 27 years ago by the late military dictator General Ziaul Haq, a strict Islamist. They run parallel to Pakistan's British-influenced secular legal code.
The debate over their relevance to 21st century Pakistan came to symbolise Pakistan's division between progressive and religious forces.
Rights groups have long campaigned for their repeal, saying they do not differentiate between rape and adultery and were heavily loaded against women.
But religious parties had rejected the original draft for the new Protection of Women Bill on the grounds that it provided no punishment for adultery.
The maximum sentence for adultery by a man or a woman under the Hudood laws is death by stoning, although that has never been enforced and those convicted of the crime get jail or a fine instead.
The new bill describes adultery instead as lewdness, adding that it must be "wilful sexual intercourse" between a man and a woman who are not married. The punishment is cut to imprisonment of up to five years and a 10,000 rupee fine.
The bill also suggests a similar punishment for any person leveling a false accusation of lewdness.
"It may not be as good as a complete repeal of the Hudood ordinances but it is a step towards dismantling anti-women and anti-minority laws," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party of former premier Benazir Bhutto.
Musharraf, a key US ally, changed Pakistani law in July to allow women detained on charges of adultery and other minor crimes to be released on bail. Hundreds of women were later freed.