The Supreme Court’s (SC) acquittal of men who gang-raped Mukhtaran Mai some nine years ago has not only caused heartfelt dejection for many, but it can have serious broader implications. It is feared that such a decision will only add to the existing on-ground difficulties faced by rape and other gender violence victims in our country. It is also not unreasonable to suspect that perpetrators of crimes against women will become even more confident of getting away without due punishment.
Mukhtaran Mai’s case drew international outrage after she was gang-raped in 2002 — on orders of a village panchayat — after her younger brother, who at that time was only 12 years old, was alleged to have had relations with a woman from a powerful rival clan. Mukhtaran Mai did not succumb to the pressures of remaining silent and for the last nine years has chosen to fight for her right to justice. Under the glare of public attention, prominent politicians of the country rushed to express their support for Mukhtaran Mai, and their indignation against what had happened to her.
While the panchayat that decided that Mukhtaran Mai be raped was not punished, in 2002, the Anti-terrorism Court (ATC) in Dera Ghazi Khan convicted six of the 14 men accused by Mukhtaran of raping her, while acquitting eight of them. The conviction was challenged in a review petition before the Lahore High Court (LHC), which acquitted another five of the six men that the ATC had convicted. After lengthy legal proceedings spanning over a three year period, the Supreme Court bench has upheld the earlier LHC decision. Thus, now only one person is serving a lifetime sentence for the crime perpetrated against Mukhtaran Mai. Insufficient police investigation and a delay in registering a case with the police form the basis for the acquittal of the other accused persons.
Mukhtaran Mai says that her life is probably in danger after the SC’s acquittal, yet she remains adamant to continue running her school and other projects in her village.
On the one hand, the interior ministry has stated that it will provide protection to Mukhtaran Mai, but on the other hand, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly prevented a discussion on the verdict, citing rules barring the assembly to debate the conduct of the apex courts.
Many civil society entities have vowed to pressure the government to seek a review of this court verdict. It is simultaneously vital for these civil society organisations to turn their attention back to the small village and its surrounding areas where Mukhtaran Mai is from, to not only help her continue her ongoing efforts, but to use their public awareness campaigns to alter local community perceptions regarding Mukhtaran Mai, so that she can lead a respectful life within her home environment, without being ostracised or maligned by the local influentials, against whom she dared to raise her voice.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2011.