Rape cases are notoriously hard to prosecute in Pakistan. Under current law, victims must produce four witnesses -- all male, adult, and pious -- to bring rape allegations to trial. Forensic evidence, such as DNA samples, is considered only circumstantial.
But that could all change soon if, as expected, a powerful Islamic body in Pakistan agrees to allow DNA to be introduced as primary evidence in rape trials. The Council of Islamic Ideology, the country's top Islamic guidance body, on September 20 issued a press release saying it has made its decision and will publicly announce the change on September 23. The influential council's recommendation will be forwarded to the government, which would then decide whether to implement it.
The decision would mark a significant shift. In May, the council ruled that the current legislation -- inspired by Shari'a law -- could not be altered because it had its origins in Islam's holy book, the Koran.
Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, who sits on the 20-member council, confirmed that the body has reversed its decision, and prefers to leave it to the courts to decide whether DNA can be used as primary evidence in a rape trial.
"DNA is not un-Islamic or against Shari'a law," Ashrafi told RFE/RL. "We are saying that if a judge thinks DNA is necessary as evidence in a certain rape case, then then it's up to the judge to accept it as admissible evidence or not."
Pakistan's "Express Tribune" on September 20 quotes an unidentified member of the Islamic council as saying that "the discussion on DNA testing was successful and we were unanimous on the issue that DNA tests can be presented as evidence in rape cases coupled with other circumstances of the crime."
Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, has welcomed what he says is a long-overdue decision.
"It's a positive development, because it's a move forward by the council," says Hasan. "It will certainly help in providing a scientific basis for rape convictions. The government is now expected to legislate in light of the council's recommendation."
The council's May 2013 decision to uphold the current Shari'a-inspired law -- enacted in 1979 by then-military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq -- prompted fierce criticism from human rights groups.
Rights groups have said the current law is one of the main reasons for the low rate of rape convictions in Pakistan. Hasan says only around 4 percent of rape cases taken to court result in a conviction.
But he says the council has been under mounting pressure to change course amid public outrage over a number of high-profile rape incidents involving minors, including that of a 5-year-old girl
in the city of Lahore earlier this month.
"These [cases] have created a lot of shock within society," he says. "The debate concerning poor conviction rates and the social revulsion over [the lack of action] has, I think, contributed to the council looking at ways in which rape convictions can be made more sound."
But even as Pakistan appeared to take a step forward on the prosecution of rape cases, it also took a half-step back, advising the government to reexamine a key piece of legislation, the 2006 Protection of Women Act.
That legislation was meant to amend the heavily criticized Hudood Ordinance laws, which dictated the punishment meted out for rape and adultery. The ordinance laws, passed in 1979, led to the imprisonment of thousands of rape victims who were unable to prove they had been assaulted.
The council now says certain clauses of the Protection of Women Act undermine Islamic values. Activists fear that if the government opts to throw out the legislation, rape victims may once again find themselves in a situation where seeking justice for a crime may end with them, and not the perpetrators, behind bars.
Looking at the apparent contradictions in the council's dual recommendations, Zohra Yusuf, who chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says successive governments have repeatedly failed to take on the challenge of changing laws regarding the prosecution of rape. The fear of provoking a backlash within a deeply conservative Islamic society, she says, was simply too great.
"Unfortunately, governments have found it expedient to make alliances with religious parties because they are afraid of their street power," she says. "There really haven't been any meaningful changes."
The council this week also discussed amendments to the Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. Among the proposals was one to introduce the death penalty for people convicted of making false accusations.
Currently, Pakistanis convicted of blasphemy -- in most cases on the basis of flimsy evidence -- are subject to a death sentence. Critics of the laws say the accusations are often used to settle personal vendettas.
Council member Ashrafi admits that people have abused blasphemy laws, but said the council is not recommending changes to those laws.
Written and reported by Frud Bezhan in Prague, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Rabia Akram Khan in Islamabad