LAHORE, Pakistan — Nine years after being gang-raped on the orders of a village council, Mukhtar Mai's struggle for justice ended Thursday when Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered five of the six accused to be freed.
A distraught Mai, who's won international acclaim for her bravery in a deeply chauvinistic society, said the release of the men had endangered her life. Originally 14 had been accused of taking part in the rape, which a tribal court of village elders ordered in 2002 as punishment because Mai's brother was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.
Human rights groups sharply criticized the Supreme Court for its verdict, which they said put the safety of all Pakistani women in danger.
Rape, so-called "honor" killings and other crimes against women are poorly investigated by police in Pakistan and routinely go unpunished. At the same time, the nation's courts have become aggressively activist in handling political cases.
Critics say judges pander to Islamist hard-liners, particularly by their kid-glove treatment of alleged jihadist terrorists, a cause for concern in Washington.
"The court is proactive when it appears to have a political ax to grind, where it is in direct confrontation with the government. But it singularly fails when it comes to women, minorities and human rights legislation," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, the international campaigning group. "This is a crisis of law enforcement and judicial conduct."
The court judgment acknowledged that Mai had been raped and upheld the sentence against one of those accused, Abdul Khaliq. But the outcome means that just one of the 14 men she believes were involved in the rape has been found guilty. A lower court already has commuted Khaliq's original death sentence to life in prison.
"I am scared these 13 people will come back to my village and harm me and my family," Mai said, speaking from her remote village in the south of Punjab province. "The courts have given a free hand to feudal lords and other powerful people."
"I have lost faith in the courts, and now I am leaving my case to the court of God," she said. "I am sure God will punish those who molested me."
Mai, who was praised by former first lady Laura Bush, has started a school for girls and a nongovernmental organization that promotes women's education. She vowed that she wouldn't flee her village and would continue her work. She's written a book about her experience titled "In the Name of Honor."
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."
Mai's ordeal began after a more powerful clan accused her 13-year-old brother of having sex with one of its young women. The woman's brother, Khaliq, and two other men then sodomized him in a sugarcane field.
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.
Khaliq forced Mai into a stable at gunpoint, where he and other clan members raped her. She then was 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 found six men guilty of rape in 2002 and sentenced them to death but freed the other eight who were accused. 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 upheld that 2005 judgment Thursday.
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 that other family members committed and women to be killed for "honor."
Pakistan's Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, has taken on the government of President Asif Ali Zardari relentlessly, ordering high officials to answer before it and reinvestigating cases in which the police and prosecution fail to present competent cases. But on social causes, the courts are nearly silent.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization, recorded 791 honor 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 group.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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