It is tempting, when hearing that five of the six men accused of raping Mukhtaran Mai have had their acquittals upheld by the Supreme Court, to see the verdict as the latest in a long line of indignities forced upon her. Mukhtaran Mai has endured government scorn and apathy with grace and has been an inspiration to millions. If anyone deserved justice, it is her.
It is important to remember that the problem with the judiciary isn’t that it wanted to deny Mukhtaran Mai justice. In Aitzaz Ahsan, she had one of the finest lawyers around and given how long it takes for most cases to be adjudicated in Pakistan, her appeal was actually heard relatively speedily. Rather, the problem is purely institutional. Rape survivors are at an inherent disadvantage when seeking justice, since their testimony is automatically treated as suspect. With Mukhtaran Mai, the police in her village of Meerwala refused to register her case for several days after she was raped, and only a public outcry led to any action being taken. That delay torpedoed her chances of a fair hearing and ensured that a miscarriage of justice was the most likely outcome.
Those who are critics of Pakistan’s parallel justice systems will also have to face some harsh realities. It was an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Dera Ghazi Khan that originally sentenced the six men to death in August 2002 for raping Mukhtaran Mai. That verdict was then appealed in the Lahore High Court (LHC), which retried the case and reversed the convictions of five of the men in 2005 on the basis of insufficient evidence. After that, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) overturned the verdict of the LHC and had the men arrested again. The Supreme Court then ruled that the FSC did not have the authority to hear the case and took up the appeal itself.
It is tempting to have a knee-jerk reaction and not only praise the ATC and FSC for its verdicts but support their operating parallel to the regular courts. Using the outcome of a single case to define judicial philosophy would be very unwise. The FSC was created as part of Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation of Pakistan and as such has often been subjected to withering criticism by the very people who most fervently wanted justice for Mukhtaran Mai. There should be no reason to soften that criticism just because of one case.
Instead, what is needed is a total overhaul of how rape cases are handled, not just by the judiciary but also the police. Such change can only come through societal pressure and will take many years to bring about, but it is the only way of preventing future Mukhtaran Mais from being denied justice.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2011.