Pakistan court frees five alleged attackers in gang rape
Just one man convicted of assault on Mukhtaran Mai, after her nine-year struggle for justice
Gang rape victim Mukhtaran Mai fears the men freed by Pakistan's supreme court will come to her village and harm her and her family. Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Human rights groups have expressed outrage after most of those accused of the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai, who was assaulted on the orders of a village council, were freed by Pakistan's supreme court.
Nine years after the gang rape, Mai's struggle for justice ended with the court ordering five of the six accused to be freed. A distraught Mai, who has won international acclaim for her bravery in a deeply chauvinistic society, said that the release of the men had put her life in danger.
Originally 14 had been accused of taking part in the rape, which was ordered in 2002 by village elders sitting as a traditional tribal court after Mai's brother was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.
The court judgment acknowledged that Mai had been raped, by upholding the sentence against one of the accused, Abdul Khaliq, but the outcome means that just one of the 14 men she believes were involved has been found guilty. Khaliq's original death sentence had already been commuted to life in prison by a lower court.
"I am scared these 13 people will come back to my village and harm me and my family," Mai said, in her remote home in the south of Punjab province. "I have lost faith in the courts and now I am leaving my case to the court of God. I am sure God will punish those who molested me."
Mai has started a school for girls and a non-governmental organisation that promotes women's education. She vowed that she would not flee her village, and would continue with her work.
The supreme court was heavily criticised by human rights groups for the verdict, which they said put the safety of all Pakistani women at risk. Rape, "honour killings" and other crimes against women in Pakistan are routinely poorly investigated by police and go unpunished by the courts.
"Mukhtaran Mai has had the courage to fight for so many years. This [verdict] shows that you can commit any crime, even in front of 100 people, and get away with it," said Fouzia Saeed, a women's rights activist, speaking outside the supreme court in Islamabad. "Every day something like this is happening in Pakistan. Jirgas [village courts] are still doing this. The jirgas will be encouraged by this verdict."
The court, under activist chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, has taken on authority relentlessly, ordering high officials to answer before it and the re-investigation of cases where the police and prosecution fail to present a competent case. But the court is accused of pandering to the country's Islamist right wing, especially when it comes to cases involving women and religious minorities, and also of failing to convict virtually anyone of terrorist offences in recent years despite raging jihadist violence across the country.
"The court is proactive when it appears to have a political axe to grind, where it is in direct confrontation with the government," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But it appears that when there are vulnerable groups involved and questions of fundamental rights, the court is playing to the rightwing gallery."
Mai's ordeal began after her 13-year-old brother was accused by a more powerful clan of having sex with one of their young women. He was then sodomised in a sugar cane field by the woman's brother, Abdul Khaliq, and two other men. There appears to be no basis for the original accusation.
A tribal council was assembled from Khaliq's clan, which ordered that Mai be punished for her brother's illicit sex by being raped, on the basis of eye-for-an-eye justice. Mai was forced at gunpoint by Khaliq into a stable, where he and other clan members raped her. She was then paraded naked around the village. Tradition dictated that Mai commit suicide, as the shame supposedly fell on her, but she decided to fight her tormentors.
A district court in 2002 found six men guilty of rape and sentenced them to death but freed the other eight accused. Then in 2005, the Lahore high court, the top provincial court, ruled that there was insufficient evidence against five of the men. The case then went to the supreme court, which on Thursday upheld the 2005 judgment.
The cruelty of Mai's case is repeated in the treatment of women across the country, with tribal councils regularly ordering young girls to be handed over in compensation for crimes committed by other family members, and women to be killed for "honour".
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organisation, recorded 791 honour killings of women in 2010; at least 26 of the women were raped or gang raped before being killed. Rape is rarely reported but at least 2,903 women did come forward with rape complaints last year, according to the commission.