Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the acquittal of five of the six men accused in the gang rape of Mukhtar Mai. The Pakistani woman refused to remain silent about the crime committed in 2002 and won international acclaim for her courage.
It was the first time in conservative Pakistan that a woman had gone public about rape.
The Supreme Court's acquittal stunned the victim, who also goes by Mukhtar Bibi. She had successfully challenged her attackers in court, and her ensuing legal struggle became a symbol of hope for oppressed and violated women.
The three-member bench of Pakistan's Supreme Court freed all but one of the six men. Abdul Khaliq will continue to serve a life term, which in Pakistani practice would likely be no more than 25 years.
The court's ruling came five years after a lower court found that Mai had been raped by a half-dozen men. "I'm very sad," she said from her home in the southern Punjab village of Meerwala. "Why was I made to wait five years if this was the decision to be given?"
Mai has always maintained that the elders of her village had ordered the rape. She says it was punishment for actions attributed to her younger brother. The 12-year-old was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival tribe. But the boy himself had been molested, and the allegations against him were found to be part of a cover-up.
In a lengthy ruling, the Supreme Court said Thursday that the prosecution's evidence against the accused rapists "is not confidence inspiring, thus the benefit must go to the accused." It noted there were no DNA or semen tests conducted.
Mai said the court ignored an abundance of evidence.
"The entire area knows that I was raped. The entire area provided witnesses ... and told the media. Around 50 to 100 people were gathered there," she said. "Even one of the elders confessed to hearing me cry and shout for them to stop. Why does the court not take all that into account?"
Anis Haroon, who chairs the National Commission on the Status of Women, said "through connivance evidence can be destroyed."
Human-rights activist Farzana Bari, a gender studies professor, said that in cases such as this, which involve influential villagers, witnesses could be dissuaded from testifying.
"So as a result of that, the people from that area who witnessed this crime were not willing to come and give evidence in the court, except people from [the victim's] own family," Bari says, "and obviously the court won't take those evidences seriously."
Haroon notes that in only 5 percent of cases involving crimes against Pakistani women are convictions ever obtained.
"It reflects on this whole system," she said. "It is encouraging for the perpetrators who see how they can go scot-free. That is one reason why violence against women is increasing manifold. It's multiplying."
Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch said Pakistan's judiciary had been ushering in a new era of human-rights advocacy. With this ruling, he said, it took a step backward and essentially endorsed vigilante justice.
"Village elders got together and thought it was a good idea that this dispute between these two subtribes would be settled by handing this woman over. And the message the court sent was: It doesn't matter!"
Regarding evidence, Hasan added that the Supreme Court does not hesitate to summon police and other state functionaries in its ongoing power struggle with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Hasan said a male chauvinistic legal system continues to discriminate against Pakistani women. He said the Federal Shariat Court seeks to roll back the 2006 Protection of Women Act on the grounds that it conflicts with ordinances that govern such things as adultery and rape. The Shariah judges want to restore provisions that require women who have been raped to produce four witnesses, and to allow police to arrest a woman on a charge of adultery based on the fact she filed a report of rape.
Mai, who established a women's aid group and several schools in her village, said with the accused rapists going free, she is worried for her safety and is not inclined to appeal.
She's no longer putting her faith in the criminal justice system. "Women the world over should not lose courage. God is just and he will dispense justice," Mai said.