Pakistan: Pakistani court backs rape victim

The Guardian
Re-arrest ordered for men acquitted of gang attack.
Pakistan's highest court delivered a legal victory yesterday to a woman who has accused 13 men of orchestrating her gang rape three years ago.
The supreme court overturned the acquittals of some of the men and ordered all of them to be rearrested.

Jubilant women crowded around Mukhtaran Bibi, 31, after judges issued warrants for the men pending a final hearing of the case, probably later this summer.

"I am happy and I hope those who humiliated me will be punished," said Ms Mukhtaran who is from Punjab province, after the verdict.

Six men, four alleged rapists and two village elders, were sentenced to death in the original trial in July 2002, which heard how a village court ordered Ms Mukhtaran to be raped as punishment for her 12-year-old brother's alleged illicit sexual affair.

But a provincial court acquitted five of the men last March, citing flaws in the evidence against them, and a sixth had his sentenced commuted to life imprisonment.

Now the supreme court has suspended that ruling and issued arrest warrants for another eight men, the jurors of the village court, who could also face death by hanging. "The court will re-evaluate the evidence and testimonies and come to a decision. We feel confident it will be in our favour," said Aitzaz Ahsan, Ms Mukhtaran's lawyer.

Ms Mukhtaran's battle for justice has sparked political controversy in Pakistan and intense interest abroad. Human rights groups say the case highlights the slanted legal system and the woeful mistreatment of women in rural communities in Pakistan.

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, tried to stop Ms Mukhtaran from travelling to a human rights conference in the US last week to prevent her criticising the country.

Gen Musharraf was forced to rescind the ban after intense media criticism and under pressure from the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

Speaking at the government-run shelter where she was due to stay last night, Ms Mukhtaran told the Guardian her confiscated passport had been returned and she was "thinking about" visiting the US. Asked whether the government's attitude towards her plight had changed, she smiled and said: "Now it looks like they are helping me."

She said she was keen for her case to be heard as quickly as possible. No date has been set.

Yesterday Nilofer Bakhtiar, Gen Musharraf's adviser on women's affairs, was due to travel to the US for the conference Ms Mukhtaran was prevented from attending.

"They want to justify themselves, but it's too late. The only way to undo the damage is for the courts to give Mukhtaran justice," said Farzana Bari, director of gender studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. She added she was "happy and relieved" the case was being heard by the supreme court.

One of Pakistan's leading human rights activists said yesterday's ruling may have been politically influenced in the light of Gen Musharraf's embarrassment.

"I'm very torn," said Asma Jahangir, a lawyer and UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. "I'm happy for Mukhtaran, but unhappy for the state of law in this country." She said that rulings in Ms Mukhtaran's case, which has come before four different courts, were influenced by the government as much as by good law. "This is more a political victory than a legal one," she said.

The case has sparked confrontation between Gen Musharraf and Pakistan's non-governmental organisations, which he accuses of manipulating Ms Mukhtaran's plight to denigrate the country's image.

Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister, promised this week to introduce legislation to "regulate" non-governmental organisations.