Gang rape victim celebrates as Pakistani court orders a retrial

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The Independent Online

Pakistan's Supreme Court overturned the acquittal of five men in a gang-rape case that has become an international cause célèbre and put the treatment of women in Pakistani society under unprecedented scrutiny.

The five men were originally found guilty of gang-raping Mukhtar Mai on the order of a village council as an "honour punishment", and sentenced to death. But in March this year that verdict was overturned by the Lahore High Court, which ordered the men to be freed.

Yesterday, responding to a joint appeal by Ms Mai and Pakistani prosecutors, the Supreme Court suspended the acquittals and said it would retry the men itself. It was a major victory for Ms Mai, also known as Muktaran Bibi, who became an icon for the women's rights movement in Pakistan and around the world after she refused to stay silent, as most Pakistani rape victims do, but instead testified against her alleged attackers in court.

There was international revulsion when the details of her case emerged, and the courtroom in Islamabad has been thronged with international diplomats, journalists and NGO workers. But in the final weeks before the two days of hearings, the case has unexpectedly pitted Ms Mai against the government of President Pervez Musharraf after she was banned from travelling abroad - a move for which Mr Musharraf took personal responsibility.

Ms Mai's story began in June 2002, when her brother Shakoor, then 12, was accused of having improper relations with a woman from the Mastoi tribe. Ms Mai's family said the charge was fabricated, and that Shakoor had been sexually assaulted by men from the Mastoi tribe - a claim supported by the fact three men were found guilty in court of sodomising him. But a village council ordered that Ms Mai should be gang-raped as a "punishment" for her brother's "crime". She was dragged to a nearby hut and raped by four men.

In the court hearing in August 2002, six men were sentenced to death: the four rapists and two members of the council that ordered the rape. But in March this year, the Lahore High Court unexpectedly freed five of the men and commuted the death sentence of the sixth to life imprisonment.

The Pakistani government initially lauded Ms Mai as a heroine. President Musharraf handed her a £4,500 gift, and his government has backed her appeal.

But in recent weeks it has all turned sour. After Ms Mai agreed to travel to the US to give a talk about her case, the government placed her name on Pakistan's "exit control list", which blocked her from leaving the country. Asked about the ban, President Musharraf said Ms Mai was being exploited by "westernised fringe elements" who wanted her to "bad-mouth" Pakistan. "She was told not to go. I don't want to project the bad image of Pakistan," he said.

It was a rare miscalculation by the President and has provoked fury in the US media. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, personally intervened and told Khurshid Kasuri, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, to lift the ban. Pakistan duly obliged. But Ms Mai has complained she is being kept under constant police guard. Police say they are there to protect her; she says it is virtual house arrest.