Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: Rape Victims Left Feeling Hopeless

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, May 16 2011 (IPS) - A recent verdict by Pakistan’s Supreme Court has left rape victims feeling dejected and helpless, as lawyers warned it could set a bad precedent for other such cases in the future.

Lawyer Faisal Siddiqi cited the Court’s verdict in the Mukhtar Mai gang-rape case, which acquitted five of six men accused of raping Mai, 32 years old and divorced, as punishment for a crime her brother supposedly committed.

“I know two of my clients certainly stuck to their struggle from the strength they derived from Mai’s example,” Siddiqi told IPS, calling the verdict the death of the Mukhtar Mai phenomenon. “Tomorrow they may decide to abandon their fight saying if Mai could not get justice, they didn’t stand a chance.”

To barrister Amber Darr, the 86-page judgment simply reeks of a chauvinistic mindset. “It took me a while to realise that divorce would have something to do with it,” she told IPS. She said the court has definitely placed a lesser value on a divorced, older woman.

“In their (the judges) eyes, she appears to have had less self-respect, less self-esteem and perhaps even fewer morals,” Darr said. “Somehow, they seem to be implying that a divorced woman is a loose woman because, not being a virgin, she has the option to indulge in sexual activities freely.”

Nine years ago, in June 2002, a village council in a little known farming village in the poorest part of Punjab province ordered a horrific punishment. Mai was dragged into a house, gang-raped and then thrown out as punishment for her brother’s supposed sexual assault of a girl from a clan of higher social standing.

About 250 or so men sat in approval as did her frightened father and uncle who did nothing to save her. Her uncle confessed later in court that he did so to save his life.

But the unlettered Mai refused to become another statistic in Pakistan’s list of violent crimes committed against women, and did the unthinkable. She decided to take on her rapists and filed a complaint against 14 men.

Of the 14 accused in Mai’s case, eight were acquitted in 2002 by the lower courts. In an appeal heard in 2005 by the Lahore High Court, the six accused were also acquitted. The acquittal was later overturned, and five of the six were sentenced.

Not one to give up, Mai brought her case to the Supreme Court which, on Apr. 21, acquitted all but one.

Rights activists are up in arms over the verdict for letting go those abetting and provoking the commission of this heinous crime.

Sarah Zaman, head of the Karachi-based War Against Rape that provides legal and psychological support to rape victims, was not too surprised at the verdict. “The outcome was typical and an inevitable reality for most rape cases in Pakistan,” she told IPS.

She said a culture of “mistrust and disbelief” of women reporting crimes prevailed in Pakistan, which was reflected in Mai’s case.

“This is a society that believes true survivors do not report rape; only shameless women do,” Zaman said caustically.

In 2010 alone, according to the annual report of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 2,903 cases of rape were reported to police. This comes to nearly eight women a day. At least 51 of these were cases of gang rape.

The same report states that of the 1,790 women murdered last year, 791 were the victims of honour killings, or murders against family members who are believed to have brought “shame” to the family name.

The annual report said at least 452 murders were committed by husbands, 225 by brothers, 58 by sons, 63 by in-laws, and 228 by other close relatives. At least 18 victims of honour killings were raped and eight gang-raped before being murdered.

Siddiqi was initially surprised because of the Supreme Court’s robust reputation of “judicial activism” since its restoration in 2008. Two of the three members of the Court voted to acquit.

The lawyer also said he would have understood perfectly had the two majority judges ruled there was “insufficient” evidence to convict the accused or that they were constrained by the “defective prosecution” as a result of a botched-up police investigation.

While conceding that Pakistan’s criminal justice system had intrinsic flaws, former attorney general Iqbal Haider said the judges ruled on the basis of “conjecture” and “misreading” of evidence.

“A rape victim in Pakistan now knows that the apex court has raised the threshold to prove rape to such a great height that it may be virtually impossible to prove,” Haider concluded.

Siddiqi, quoting the verdict, went so far as to point out that the judges have called the witnesses liars and concluded that Mai’s gang-rape was “orchestrated” by a “mastermind”, the village cleric Maulvi Abdul Razzak.

“They have also concluded that Mai was ‘vengeful’ and felt ‘betrayed’ because the exchange marriages (her sodomised brother’s marriage with the sister of two of the accused and hers to Abdul Khaliq, the only one of the six sentenced by the Supreme Court) did not take place,” said Siddiqi.

“I don’t even have a problem if the judges think this was a conspiracy hatched by Mai, but then they should prove it based on facts, which they have been unable to do,” he said. “On top of that, the judges have accused her of lying.”

Mai’s lawyer has appealed the verdict. “The only good that could come out of the review, if it goes in her favour, would be that her story would be upheld during the trial, since four of those acquitted have already served almost ten years, and will, in any case, have earned their freedom,” explained Siddiqi.

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