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Afghan president orders changes to draft law following claims it would hurt women's rights

In this Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014, Afghan widow, Zar Afshan, 21, center, holds her daughter as she sits beside her father, right, at her parents' home in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afshan's in-laws forced her to return to her parents' home after her husband was killed during an attack on the Taverna du Liban restaurant few weeks ago in Afghan capital Kabul. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered changes to a draft of new criminal legislation in response to an international outcry warning it would severely limit justice for victims of domestic abuse, his spokesman said Monday. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

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In this Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014, Afghan widow, Zar Afshan, 21, center, holds her daughter as she sits beside her father, right, at her parents' home in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afshan's in-laws forced her to return to her parents' home after her husband was killed during an attack on the Taverna du Liban restaurant few weeks ago in Afghan capital Kabul. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered changes to a draft of new criminal legislation in response to an international outcry warning it would severely limit justice for victims of domestic abuse, his spokesman said Monday. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday ordered changes to a draft of new criminal legislation in response to an international outcry warning it would severely limit justice for victims of domestic abuse, his spokesman said.

Afghanistan's parliament had passed a new criminal procedure code that would ban relatives from testifying against alleged abusers. While the legislation awaited signature from Karzai, human rights organizations and several of Afghanistan's Western allies — including the U.S. and European Union — voiced strong concerns it would effectively curb prosecutions involving violence against women, where relatives are often the only witnesses.

Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the president was "well aware" of the criticism and decided at a Cabinet meeting Monday that the legislation must be changed.

"We are not going to allow any such law to come into force unless the necessary amendments are made," Faizi said, suggesting that there may have been issues with how the area in question — Article 26 — was translated into English.

While the Ministry of Justice will decide on how to amend the text, Faizi stressed the resulting legislation will be clear.

"This law will not bar any relative or any family member to testify against each other or another member of family," he told The Associated Press. "It will be up to them. They will have the freedom."

Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, said she was "absolutely thrilled" by the move.

"Our tireless advocacy for the last few weeks paid off," she said. "This is what we wanted — for the bill to go back to the Ministry of Justice for revision."

The U.S. Embassy called Karzai's order a "welcome response" to concerns raised by many.

"We look forward to the final passage of a criminal procedure code that protects the access to justice of all Afghans," it said in a statement.

And Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said it was "good news" that the government realized there was a serious problem with the code, but added in an email that she looks forward "to seeing the actual revision and will look closely to see whether it solves the problem."

Women in Afghanistan have won back many of the rights they lost during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, when the Islamic movement was ousted by an American invasion for sheltering al-Qaida militants following the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.

Under the Taliban, girls were barred from attending school, women were forced to stay indoors and cover their heads and faces with burqas.

There are fears that many of those freedoms may shrink as foreign forces depart by the end of this year and much of the international aid they brought to Afghanistan goes with them.

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Follow Cassandra Vinograd at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd

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