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July 26, 2002 03:55am
Gang Rape Case That Stunned Pakistan Due in Court
Source: Reuters
by: Mike Collett-White

(MULTAN, PAKISTAN) -- In a case of shocking brutality that sparked outrage in Pakistan, four men go on trial on Friday charged with a gang rape authorized as punishment by a traditional village jury.

The defendants could face the death penalty if convicted of a crime similar to frequent abuses in southern Punjab, a region little touched by central authority and where centuries-old concepts of honor and revenge are paramount.

Mukhtaran Mai, a 30-year-old divorcee, says she was repeatedly raped last month after approaching the tribal council in Meerwala to settle a dispute between two families at the opposite ends of the village's social scale.

The juries, called panchayats, are often convened in rural areas to settle local disputes.

Mai, from the poorer Gujar family, pleaded with the men of the more powerful Mastoi clan to free her brother, kidnapped after allegedly having an illicit affair with a Mastoi woman. Abdul Shakur, said to be in his early teens, denied the charge, but that did not prevent three Mastoi men, none of them involved in the current trial, allegedly sodomizing him.

To save the honor of the Mastoi clan, Shakur was expected to wed the Mastoi woman with whom he was linked while Mai was to be given away in marriage to a Mastoi man.

Mai begged the council for mercy, but instead ended up meeting the full force of Mastoi revenge -- four men raped her and made her walk home semi-naked in front of hundreds of people, according to the prosecution.

"This incident was shocking for people in general," said the government's prosecutor in the case, Ramzan Khalid Joiya, in his offices in the Punjab town of Multan. The trial is being held in Dera Ghazi Khan two hours' drive to the west.

"This kind of violation of women is very common, but every time it is highlighted, the practice stops at least for a while, which is better than nothing," he told Reuters.

Case Particularly Shocking

Dozens of rapes and "honor" killings of women have been registered in Punjab this year, with women slain by fathers, brothers and husbands for "crimes" including failing to conceive a child and refusing to become a prostitute.

But Naeem Mirza of the Aurat Foundation, a women's rights group, said the Meerwala case was particularly shocking.

"The most distinctive feature of this case is that this was sanctioned by the panchayat, and the public outrage also makes it different."

One surprising aspect of the case is that it came to light at all. People in the region are often afraid to reveal such abuses, because perpetrators wield influence or because of the social stigma attached to victims.

In Mai's case the local imam, Abdul Razzaq, spoke about the alleged crime in a mosque during Friday prayers.

Police were accused of dragging their feet in the investigation until the case attracted international media attention. Once that happened, work accelerated, said Joiya.

The trial will be held in an anti-terrorism court behind closed doors and could take as little as four days.

International human rights groups have criticized the special courts for rushing trials and being vulnerable to political pressure from local and central government.

In a separate case in Punjab this week, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered a probe into a panchayat-sanctioned deal under which four murderers sought to escape hanging by selling young daughters into marriage to elderly relatives of their victims.

A district mayor in the city of Mianwali said the bridegrooms -- one 77 and the other 55 -- married the 15 and 14-year-old daughters of two of the murderers on Wednesday morning, but divorced them later the same day on the advice of local elders.

The Supreme Court said the marriage deal violated the law and the norms of a civilized society. The men are due to hang on Saturday.

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