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Controversial Afghan Shi'a Law On Hold For Review

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghanistan's Justice Ministry has said a law for the country's Shi'a minority, which has caused an international uproar because of controversial provisions on women's rights, is on hold and under review.

The ministry said for now it would not publish the law in the country's official gazette, which would bring it into effect.

"The justice ministry is working on the law, and on those articles which were problematic, and for the time being the law is not going to be published," a ministry spokesman said.

Shi'ite Muslims account for some 15 percent of mainly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan and the wide-ranging Shi'ite Personal Status Law aims to enshrine differences between the two sects.

Critics say the law legalises marital rape, and some lawmakers allege Karzai signed it hastily because he faces a crucial election on August 20 and wants to curry favor with Shi'ite voters, who can swing the contest.

But supporters of the law say it is an important defence of minority rights and traditions that was debated on and off for two years before being signed by Karzai and approved by both chambers of parliament.

After it drew criticism from Afghanistan's Western allies, President Hamid Karzai promised on April 4 that the Justice Minister would speak on it in detail, but he has not yet done so.

A copy of the unpublished law seen by Reuters states "a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband" when she is healthy and has to wear make-up if her husband demands it.

Article 137 also says a woman cannot inherit any of her husband's wealth when he dies, a provision that already applies to Sunni Muslim women under Afghan law.

Amendments made to the Shi'ite law show the marriage age for women was raised to 16 from nine and that a woman would be allowed to leave her home unaccompanied for medical treatment, to go to work, or for her education.

The United States, Canada, Britain, and the United Nations have spoken out against the law. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the BBC on April 3 it might also make it harder for member states to boost troops battling Taliban insurgents.

Karzai said on April 4 such criticisms were based on a wrong translation or misinterpretation of the law, and a copy he had seen did not reflect the criticisms and concerns of Afghanistan's Western backers.