By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 27 -- Ten days after Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, declared her a threat to the country's image, Mukhtar Mai sat prominently in a front-row seat of Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday, still seeking justice after being gang-raped three years ago, allegedly on orders of a tribal council.
The court began hearing arguments Monday on Mai's appeal to reopen the case. In March, a lower court overturned the convictions of five of the six men charged in connection with the rape on the basis of insufficient evidence. The men had been sentenced to death. The sixth man charged had his death sentence converted to life in prison.
"I am expecting the Supreme Court to give the same kind of ruling," Mai, 32, told reporters before entering the courtroom with dozens of supporters.
In an episode that has become a focal point for concerns about violence against women in Pakistan, Mai was attacked in Meerwala, her village in southern Punjab province. The council allegedly ordered the rape to settle a score with Mai's brother, 13, who had been accused of an improper relationship with the sister of one of those accused.
Mai, who now runs two primary schools in her village with help from the government and private donors, was barred from traveling to the United States this month, because Musharraf said he feared she would project a "bad image" of Pakistan.
Pakistan lifted the travel ban following protests from the Bush administration and other governments. But Mai and her supporters charge that the government has continued to interfere with her freedom of speech and movement in the guise of ensuring her safety.
Nilofar Bakhtiar, a government adviser on women's issues, denied any effort to silence Mai. Bakhtiar noted that Musharraf had directed government funding to Mai's schools and for electricity and water projects in Meerwala.
"We are all together," she said, citing the presence of Attorney General Makhdoom Ali Khan on Mai's legal team. "For us, it is a test case also."
Bakhtiar said that Musharraf had ordered the travel ban "because he received some information from Pakistanis living abroad and some other agencies that this trip should not take place."
Asked to describe the information, Bakhtiar replied, "There were some reasons. He's the head of the country. He should know."
On Monday, a three-judge panel of the court considered arguments about whether it has jurisdiction in the case. The hearing was scheduled to continue Tuesday. If the court agrees to consider the appeal, it could render a verdict or refer the matter to a lower court, an outcome that could delay a final resolution for a year or more, legal experts said.
In overturning the convictions, the Lahore High Court cited Mai's failure to report the rape for seven days and what it described as unreliable medical evidence. Human rights advocates said Mai's reluctance to report the crime was hardly surprising in light of the stigma that attends to rape in this conservative Islamic society. They also noted threats against her.
The five men who had their convictions overturned were released after the March decision and returned to Meerwala. Mai's supporters raised concerns about her safety, and she has been under a 24-hour police guard. The men have since been rearrested on orders of the provincial government.
Musharraf confirmed this month that he had barred Mai from traveling to the United States at the invitation of human rights organizers. During a visit to New Zealand, he described the organizers as "Westernized fringe elements" who wanted her to "bad-mouth Pakistan," according to the Associated Press.
Mai said last week that she had been told the ban had been lifted. But before her trip from Punjab for Islamabad on Sunday, Mai complained that her movements were still restricted by the heavy security that surrounds her everywhere she goes, according to the Associated Press.
"Are free people like this?" she asked reporters at the airport in the city of Multan. "I am not being allowed to speak with people."
On Monday afternoon, a reporter who attempted to visit Mai at a government women's shelter in Islamabad where she is staying was turned away by plainclothes police armed with assault rifles. The police refused to deliver a message to her. Reached later on her cell phone, Mai said she had been ordered by her attorney not to speak publicly until the Supreme Court concluded its current round of hearings.
Bakhtiar said reports that the government is restricting Mai's freedom were "absolutely untrue," adding, "She has been talking to the whole world, for God's sake."