MEERWALA, Pakistan -- Mukhtar Mai wept for an hour, she said, when she learned on March 3 that the men convicted of raping her would walk free. But the worst moment came the next morning when she rode through her village in a taxi. "I could see the happiness in people's faces," she recalled, "as if they were making fun of me."
That attitude reflected the satisfaction of some villagers over a court decision that threw out the convictions of four men sentenced to death for raping Mai on the orders of a tribal council on June 22, 2002. The council, according to testimony, had ordered the rape to settle a score with Mai's teenage brother, who had been accused of an improper relationship with the sister of one of the accused men.
Mukhtar Mai, whose widely publicized case against her alleged rapists is at the Supreme Court level, runs two primary schools for girls in her village.
(B. K. Bangash -- AP)
The case sparked international outrage and an outpouring of sympathy for Mai, an illiterate laborer's daughter who now runs two primary schools in her village with help from the government and private donors. The court decision overturning the convictions of the four men -- as well as two others linked to the episode -- rekindled anger about the case and raised fears for the safety of Mai, who lives under 24-hour police protection.
Concern for Mai has receded somewhat since the accused men were rearrested on March 18 pending a review of the evidence against them by Pakistan's Supreme Court. But the case remains a focal point of public anger over the failure of the criminal justice system to deal adequately with perpetrators of violence against women in this conservative Islamic country.
Due to social stigma, Pakistani women are extremely reluctant to report rapes, which, in any event, are notoriously hard to prove because Islamic law in Pakistan requires four witnesses to a sexual assault unless there is compelling physical evidence. Moreover, legal experts say, police typically lack the resources and training -- and often the motivation -- to properly investigate rape.
In overturning the convictions in Mai's case, the Lahore High Court cited her failure to report the rape for seven days, unreliable medical evidence and contradictions in statements by the victim and witnesses. It asserted that Mai's story did "not ring true" and that "the possibility of fabrication and false implication cannot be ruled out."
The opinion infuriated human rights campaigners, who said Mai's reluctance to report the crime was hardly surprising in light of social factors as well as the threats they said she received from the alleged rapists and their fellow Mastoi tribesmen, who occupy a higher social position in the community than Mai.
The prosecutor in the case, Ramzan Khalid Joya, said there was no question the gang rape occurred, describing the statements' contradictions as "petty" and the medical evidence as persuasive. But Joya acknowledged that the police investigation left much to be desired and even suggested that the Lahore court was justified in overturning the convictions he won at a lower level in 2002.
"It was a case which was badly investigated by the local police," Joya said in an interview Monday. "They conducted the investigation in a casual manner."
Mai, a slender, soft-spoken 32-year-old who projects a quiet dignity, comes from a community of cattle-herders, known as gujjars, in Meerwala, a bucolic village of mud-walled compounds surrounded by wheat fields and date palms in southern Punjab province, about 240 miles south of Islamabad.
The incident allegedly began when Mai's adolescent brother was spotted with a young woman from the Mastoi tribe -- a breach of village protocol for which he was kidnapped and then sodomized by several Mastoi tribesmen. To cover up the crime, the Mastois summoned Mai to a tribal council, or jirga, in a field, where the sentence of rape was pronounced.
Clutching a Koran and asking whether there was "any Muslim who could save her respect," Mai was then dragged into a nearby house and raped by four men, emerging an hour later with her clothes bloodied and torn, according to court records. A week later, at the urging of a local cleric, she reported the rape to police; in August, after an uncommonly speedy trial, the four men and two members of the tribal council were convicted and sentenced to death by a special anti-terrorism court.
The case, which was widely reported in the Pakistani and international media, transformed Mai into something of a celebrity. She attended women's forums in Bombay and Madrid and briefly had her own Web site, sponsored by supporters. The case also turned her into an agent of development, as government officials provided funds not only for the village's first schools but also for paved roads and electricity. Mai is the school administrator and a student; she is currently working her way through the third grade.
News of the high court's decision to release the convicted men this month set off joyful celebrations among the Mastoi, who blocked traffic and passed out sweets on the day the acquittals were announced. After his release, one of the accused hosted a feast for 500 people, said Mohammed Siddique, the government administrator for Meerwala and adjacent villages.