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Justice Overturned in Pakistan

2 minute read
Tim McGirk | Islamabad

In the remote desert villages of Pakistan beyond the reach of government courts, tribal law is often the only adjudicator of local disputesand the use of rape to settle scores is common. In June 2002, 30-year-old Mukhtar Mai was publicly raped by four volunteers in the hamlet of Meerwala in central Pakistan on the orders of village elders. She had committed no crime: her 12-year-old brother had been accused of walking with a girl from the higher Mastoi caste, and Mai was chosen to bear the punishment for her family.

Victims of such assaults are expected to suffer in silenceor kill themselves out of shamebut despite threats of violence, Mai pressed charges against her alleged assailants, becoming an icon in the fight to eliminate such barbaric tribal customs. (TIME named her one of Asia’s Heroes last year for her defiance.) A conventional court sentenced six men to death in August 2002 for ordering and carrying out the gang rape, and Mai used the $8,300 awarded to her by the government to open a village school.

But last Thursday, an appeals court overturned the verdict against the men accused of raping Mai, citing a lack of evidence and a poor investigation by the prosecution. Her lawyer, Rashid Rehman, claimed that the investigators had been pressured by the Mastoi. Five of the accused walked free while the other had his sentence commuted to life in prison. “I am in pain,” Mai said afterward. “I will ask my lawyer to challenge the decision.” Human-rights groups have condemned the ruling: I.A. Rehman, director of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says the trial “brought disgrace to Pakistan’s justice system.”

With the release of the men who allegedly abused her, Mai’s troubles may be beginning all over again. Says Rehman the human-rights activist: “The freed men will now be thirsting for revenge against Mai and her family.” Several human-rights activists are demanding that the Pakistani government provide Mai and her family with police protection; without it, they say, she may have to flee the village to avoid harm. Unbowed, Mai intends to keep teaching at the schoolhouse she built. The larger lessons of her traumatic experience, however, seem to have gone unlearned.

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