After a stern protest by the Bush administration, Pakistan yesterday lifted travel restrictions imposed on a Pakistani gang-rape victim, freeing her to visit the United States for a series of high-profile speeches.
Mukhtar Mai earned international renown after she demanded the prosecution of men who had raped her on the orders of a traditional village council in June 2002. According to testimony, the council ordered the rape as punishment after Mai's teenage brother allegedly offended a powerful clan by having an affair with the sister of one of the accused men.
But last Friday, a court ordered the release of 12 men connected with her case, and Mai was reportedly detained and refused permission to leave the country after she indicated she planned to speak out about the plight of rural women in her country. She is an illiterate laborer's daughter who now runs two primary schools in her village with help from the government and private donors.
U.S. criticism of Pakistan in the case contrasted with President Bush's praise of the country's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as a visionary leader trying to moderate his country's image. Pakistan has also played a key role in the battle against al Qaeda. But U.S. officials said they were appalled by the government's actions in this case.
"We were confronted with what I can only say was an outrageous situation where her attackers were ordered to be freed while she had restrictions on her travel placed on her," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "We conveyed our views about these restrictions to the senior levels of the Pakistani government."
McCormack, who opened his daily briefing yesterday with the statement on the case, described Mai as "a courageous woman who is a victim of a horrendous crime." He said the Pakistani government told U.S. officials she had been removed from the exit control list that prevents overseas travel.
Mai is expected to speak next week in Washington and five other cities at events organized by the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Women, a group that promotes human rights and social justice for South Asian women.
The Pakistani Embassy in Washington issued a statement late yesterday that depicted Mai's situation differently. Mai was "not under detention and has no bar on her traveling abroad," the statement said, adding that she had asked for "police protection after being threatened by the relatives of the accused in the case."
The embassy said that rather than being under house arrest, as was widely reported, she was attending a luncheon in Islamabad. Mai had not traveled to the United States because of "the illness of her mother," but would make the trip soon, the embassy said.
Calling Mai "a woman of great courage," the embassy asserted that the "misstatement of facts in her case" had caused her "great mental agony."