By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 28 -- Pakistan's Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to open a new inquiry into the case of Mukhtar Mai, a woman who was gang-raped three years ago on the orders of a village tribal council.
The court decision overturned a lower court judgment in March that threw out the convictions of five of the men accused of involvement in the rape and commuted the death sentence of a sixth. The Supreme Court also ordered the detention of the men, along with eight others originally charged in the case.
The high court's decision, after two days of hearings, was a victory for Mai, 32, an unlettered laborer's daughter from a village in southern Punjab province. Her plight has become a focal point for concerns both in Pakistan and abroad about violence against women in this conservative Islamic country. The court could decide to impose new sentences on the accused men.
"I am happy and I hope those who humiliated me will be punished," Mai told reporters after emerging from the Supreme Court following Tuesday's ruling.
The tribal council allegedly ordered the gang rape in June 2002 to settle a score with Mai's teenage brother, who had been accused of an improper relationship with the sister of one of the men subsequently charged. After a storm of international outrage, a special anti-terrorism court convicted six suspects, but that verdict was overturned by a provincial appeals court in March. The appeals court faulted police for slipshod investigative work.
The reversal of the convictions renewed international interest in the case, as did a decision earlier this month by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, to prevent Mai from traveling to the United States on the grounds that she might project a "bad image" of Pakistan. Musharraf lifted the ban after protests from the U.S. government.
Musharraf has sought to demonstrate his interest in the case by steering development money in the last few years to Mai's village of Meerwala, where Mai now runs two primary schools with support from the government and private donors. She lives under 24-hour police protection.
Accompanied by several dozen supporters, Mai spent part of Monday and Tuesday at the Supreme Court as a three-judge panel considered whether it had jurisdiction in the case. In its decision Tuesday, the panel did not rule on the merits of the case, but merely "accepted it for a hearing," explained Aitzaz Ahsan, a Cambridge-educated lawyer and opposition member of parliament who is representing Mai.
The court will not take new testimony in the case but "will only reappraise and reevaluate the evidence that has already been submitted," Ahsan said. "It is my belief as Mukhtar Mai's counsel that the evidence if it is evaluated properly is sufficient to warrant convictions."
Six of the accused had been sentenced to death by the anti-terrorism court; eight others had been acquitted. Some legal experts have raised questions about whether the court is capable of maintaining its independence -- and granting the men a fair hearing -- in the emotionally and politically charged atmosphere that surrounds the case.