In a ruling seen as a setback for women's rights in Pakistan, the country's Supreme Court on Thursday freed five men accused of gang-raping a woman on the orders of a village council.
In 2002, local elders in the southern Punjab village of Meerwala decreed that Mukhtar Mai, 30 at the time, should be raped in retaliation for her 13-year-old brother's alleged relationship with a woman from a wealthier family.
Because of the severe social stigma associated with rape in Pakistan, many victims commit suicide or do not file complaints. Mai, however, went public with her case and won worldwide acclaim that helped illuminate the plight of women in the conservative Muslim nation, where conviction rates in cases of rape and domestic violence are disturbingly low.
Six of the 14 suspects charged in Mai's rape were convicted in 2002 and sentenced to death. The other eight were acquitted. In 2005, the Lahore High Court, a provincial appellate panel, acquitted five of the six convicted men and commuted the death sentence of the sixth man to life imprisonment. The five men remained in jail while Mai's appeal to the Supreme Court was pending.
In ordering the release of the five men, the federal high court backed the appellate panel's finding in 2005 of a lack of evidence to support the case.
Human rights groups criticized the Supreme Court's ruling as a step backward for women's rights in the South Asia nation. Human Rights Watch released a statement calling the ruling "a setback for Mukhtar Mai, the broader struggle to end violence against women, and the cause of an independent rights-respecting judiciary in Pakistan."
Reacting to the ruling, Mai called it "a sad day for Pakistani women."
"I wasn't expecting this," she said in a phone interview from her home in Meerwala. "I've been struggling for nine years for women's rights and was expecting the Supreme Court to give me justice. And it hasn't."
Mai also said she feared that the men she accused will seek vengeance against her and her family.
"Absolutely, I feel threatened, and my family feels threatened," she said. "The government of Pakistan and the Supreme Court will be responsible for any kind of violence that occurs against me or my family."
Since the attack, Mai has become a prominent women's rights activist in Pakistan and has drawn praise from the United Nations and international rights groups.