ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday freed five men accused of gang-raping a village woman in 2002, disappointing rights activists after a long-fought case that received world attention and turned the victim, Mukhtar Mai, into a symbol of hope for oppressed women.
The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that found there was not enough evidence to support Mai’s account of being dragged into a house and raped, on orders from a village council, as punishment for an alleged romance between Mai’s young brother and a woman from a more powerful tribe.
The case exposed to the world a side of Pakistan’s tribal culture in which women are often punished harshly for affairs or sold as brides to settle disputes or compensate for the perceived sins of their relatives.
Fourteen men were originally charged, but only one remains in prison, where he is serving a life sentence. The others, all villagers from the rival tribe, were acquitted by lower courts.
Rights advocates in Pakistan called Thursday’s verdict a travesty of justice and said it showed the country’s judicial system to be patriarchal and prejudiced against women.
The panel of justices found that while a “sordid and despicable” act may have been committed, Mai’s tale of tribal abuses was “implausible and flimsy.” They took her to task for making confusing statements about how her clothing was torn after the rapes and for failing to go to the police for one week.
“This is a setback for Mukhtar Mai, the broader struggle to end violence against women and the cause of an independent rights-respecting judiciary in Pakistan,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, a representative of New York-based Human Rights Watch in Karachi.
Mai, 42, runs a school for girls in her village in southern Punjab province. She told Geo television that she feared for her life after Thursday’s verdict but would not halt her struggle for women’s rights.
“This is not justice that I received today, but I have faith in God,” she said. She asked the government to take measures to protect her.
Pakistani women’s organizations said they worried the ruling could strengthen “parallel” legal systems such as tribal councils, adding that it had “shaken the confidence of women of Pakistan to stand up for their rights.” But the groups praised Mai for her courage and called her “a role model for the women of Pakistan.”