Islamabad: The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Thursday upheld the acquittal of five of the six men accused in the gang rape of Mukhtar Mai, the resilient woman who had gained international recognition and emerged as a symbol of the voiceless and oppressed women in the country.
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, led by Justice Shakirullah Jan, upheld a decision by the Lahore High Court and acquitted five of the accused, citing lack of evidence. The sixth is to complete life sentence. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was not part of the bench.
Ms. Mukhtar was allegedly gang raped in 2002 on the orders of the village council in Meerwala, a dusty farming village in the backwaters of Punjab Province. The case jolted the country and ignited international outrage.
The rape was a punishment for her younger brother's alleged illicit relations with a woman from a rival tribe, the Mastoi. Later investigations revealed that the boy had been molested by three Mastoi tribesmen, and the accusation against him had been a cover-up.
Ms. Mukhtar became a cause célèbre among human rights activists after she spoke out against the crime and her ensuing legal struggle became a source of strength and inspiration for rape victims. She also set up two schools for boys and girls in her village.
"I am deeply upset by the decision of the Supreme Court," she said by telephone from Meerwala. "Now I don't have confidence in any court. But the court of Allah is bigger than any worldly court."
Ms. Mukhtar also expressed concern for her safety. "The Supreme Court will be responsible if something happens to me or my family," she said.
She said was informed of the court hearing Wednesday night and wanted to come to Islamabad to attend the hearing Thursday but her lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, advised her not to.
"He said that the court would already have made up its mind and there was little use in my traveling through the night to reach Islamabad." Ms. Mukhtar said she would consult Mr. Ahsan but appeared to be resigned to the decision, adding: "I leave everything in the court of Allah."
The legal battle took many twists and turns in the past nine years. Fourteen men were initially charged in the case in 2002 and six -- the leader of the village council, a council member and the four men accused of carrying out the rape -- were convicted and sentenced to death in August 2002. But in March 2005, the Lahore High Court overturned the convictions of five of the men and commuted the death sentence of the sixth to life in prison.
Women rights activists, reacting to the Supreme Court decision, called it a reflection of the country's flawed criminal justice system.
"We are absolutely devastated," said Farzana Bari, a rights activist based in Islamabad who attended the court hearing. "This is a black day for all of us."
"Mukhtar's case was so well known and for nine years we had been campaigning and even then if she cannot get justice then there is no hope for any victim," she said.