Hundreds of women were likely to be freed on bail from Pakistan prisons on Saturday, after the president amended a law to pave the way for their release, officials said.
President Gen Pervez Musharraf on Friday signed an ordinance granting bail rights to women charged with adultery and other minor crimes under harsh Islamic and other criminal laws.
Musharraf, a moderate, has tried in the past to reform Islamic laws on blasphemy and women's rights -- but has backed off due to strong opposition in deeply conservative Pakistan.
"We are prepared to free on bail about 20 women, including 16 inmates who are facing charges for adultery under Hudood (Islamic) laws," said Fakhra Azra Azra, a jail official in Multan, a main city in the eastern province of Punjab.
Mohammed Arshad, an official at Adiala Jail near the capital, Islamabad, also said they were processing documents to release women.
He gave no further details, but the minister for women's affairs, Sumaira Malik, has said the law will initially help release 1,300 women.
"President Musharraf has taken a bold decision to protect the rights of women and save them from the misuse of Islamic laws," Malik told reporters on Friday.
High-profile human right activist IA Rahman praised the development, but demanded repeal of the Hudood Ordinance, which is based on the Quran and Islamic tradition.
"Musharraf has taken one good step, but he should do more. He should scrap the Hudood Ordinance to save women from any future persecution," Rahman said.
Since the Hudood Ordinance was introduced in 1979 by late dictator Gen Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan has had two parallel, sometimes overlapping legal systems: One based on British common law and another based on Islamic law.
Under the ordinance, women can be sentenced to death by stoning if found guilty of having sex outside of marriage. Drinking is punishable by 80 lashes and theft with the amputation of the right hand.
However, such punishments have not been carried out in Pakistan because courts from the Islamic and ordinary legal systems overturn each others' decisions in unresolved jurisdictional battles.
Malik did not distribute copies of the amendment, which she described as "a great step by the government," and only said Musharraf had signed it.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf overthrew in a 1999 coup, made an unsuccessful bid to base the nation's entire legal system on Islam.
Human rights groups say the Hudood Ordinance makes rape prosecutions almost impossible because under the laws, the victim must produce four male Muslim witnesses in court to prove the charge.