Pakistan rape case acquittal seen as setback to women's rights

Pakistan's Muktaharan Mai won worldwide acclaim when she went public after she was gang raped in 2002. In Pakistan, rape conviction rates are extremely low.

Khalid Tanveer/AP
People protest against the Supreme Court's decision on Thursday, April 21, in Multan, Pakistan. Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday freed five men accused in the notorious gang-rape of a Pakistani woman under orders from a village council in 2002, angering the victim and human rights groups.

Five out of six men convicted of gang-raping a Pakistani woman were acquitted by Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday, in a highly watched decision that critics say will set back the struggle for women’s rights.

The Supreme Court's verdict upholds a previous High Court judgment to acquit the alleged rapists of Mukhtaran Mai. It also commutes the death penalty of a sixth man convicted of raping her to life imprisonment. Ms. Mai became a national and international symbol of a then almost nonexistent women’s rights movement in Pakistan when she spoke out against her attackers following her ordeal in 2002. Today's verdict highlights the bumpy road ahead for that movement.

Mai was allegedly raped by several men on the orders of a self-styled community justice council, in the Punjab village of Meerwala. Local elders ordered Mai to be raped because her teenage brother stood accused of committing adultery with a rival clan's daughter. Villagers say the boy was merely seen walking with the girl.

Upon hearing the verdict, Mai, who has received numerous international awards for her work for the rights of women in Pakistan, told reporters she now fears reprisal.

“I’m disappointed. Why was I made to wait for five years if this decision was to be given?” Mai told Reuters, adding: “The accused can kill me and my family when they return home.”

Reaction among media commentators was harsh and swift, with much anger directed at Pakistan’s recently empowered judiciary. “In a country like Pakistan, where women don't even dare to report rape because of the taboo attached to it, our judiciary sets rapists free,” tweeted Mehmal Sarfraz, a Lahore-based journalist.

Thursday’s verdict not only has a “negative impact on civil society organizations that are trying to improve the condition of women,” but also highlights weak collection of evidence by the police that allows serious criminals as well as terrorists to walk free, says Mehdi Hasan, former chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). “During the last four years in serious crimes like terrorism, 98 percent of accused have been acquitted,” he says, citing HRCP research.

The court’s detailed judgment cites lack of DNA testing as a reason for acquitting the men. “The entire case fell apart on lack of evidence. There was no corroboration of statements, various things were missing. The police in this country are not sensitized to deal with rape victims,” says Ayesha Tammy Haq, a talk-show host and lawyer, adding that police reform is crucial.

Still, in the nine years since Mai took up the cause, Mai's case has helped embolden women in Pakistan. Rape is rarely reported, but at least 2,903 women came forward with rape complaints last year, a significant increase from those recorded in 2005 according to the the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

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