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Last Updated: Friday, 17 June 2005, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Pakistan's gang rape PR disaster
aamer ahmed khan
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Has Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf "gone nuts"?

Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai - says the government has taken her passport

That was the view forcibly expressed this week in the prestigious New York Times.

Ordinarily, asking such a thing about the West's favourite ally - and that too a Muslim leader armed with an agenda of "enlightened moderation" - would perhaps amount to unwarranted insolence.

But it suddenly seems to have become the predominant query in the minds of Pakistan watchers from Canberra to Washington.

The case in point? The treatment meted out to Mukhtar Mai, the gutsy woman from a rural backwater who turned her gang rape into a gripping real life tale of a struggle against a criminal justice system in a state of deep rot.

Three years after she was allegedly gang raped on the orders of a rural council as punishment for a crime attributed to her brother, Ms Mai (also known as Mukhtaran Mai) has made headlines again.

And some feel the circumstances now are no less distressing than the one that first propelled her to the attention of the international media.

Travel ban

Briefly, Ms Mai was invited by a human rights body in the US to explain the social work she has undertaken since her gang rape.

President Musharraf
Will heads roll when Gen Musharraf returns home?

Apart from two schools in her native village of Meerwala, she has set up a trauma centre for women with the money that she received in donations from all over the world when her story hit the headlines.

But after applying for a US visa, she was reportedly pressurised by the Pakistan government into passing on the invite.

All this at a time when it emerged that she had been placed on a list of people banned from leaving Pakistan and she herself had complained of being under "virtual house arrest" in her home.

No one quite knows why she withdrew her application to visit the US.

Ms Mai says it was because of her mother's illness.

The Pakistan government says she is free to travel wherever she wants.

But you will be hard pressed to find anyone who believes either claim.

And now Ms Mai says the government has taken away her passport, so she can't travel abroad even if she wants to.

'Went berserk'

But before one starts looking for the truth, let us hear the story of her aborted US trip from the foreign media.

"The Pakistan government went berserk," writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai complained of 'virtual house arrest'

Mr Kristof first wrote on Ms Mai soon after the incident and has since helped raise $133,000 for her social work.

Mr Kristof says he remained sympathetic to President Musharraf even after he was denied a visa to "block me from visiting" Ms Mai again.

"But now President Musharraf has gone nuts."

And his advice: "Ms Mukhtaran, a symbol of courage and altruism, is the best hope for Pakistan's image. The threat to Pakistan's image comes from President Musharraf for all this thuggish behavior."

Just as harsh is the British newspaper The Guardian.

"The move [to ban her from travelling] was shocking because Ms Mukhtaran is a genuine Pakistani heroine."

"Neither moderate nor enlightened, the crude gagging order has confirmed suspicions that Mr Musharraf pays lip service to human rights but often fails to deliver," the paper concludes.

Another British newspaper The Independent, has taken the incident to be indicative of the overall attitude of the Pakistan government.

"The ruling party has vilified Ms Mai's supporters as unpatriotic," it says.

It then quotes Pakistan's junior interior minister Shahzad Wasim: "People in NGOs (who have been supporting Ms Mai) are ready to say anything for one dinner with Johnny Walker and eat innocent people like vultures."

And if one is to even skim through what is being said on the issue by US bloggers, it is best not to let the kids peep over your shoulder.

Lucky

It is hard to recall the last time President Musharraf faced such a public relations disaster.

PM Shaukat Aziz and Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz

The controversy has blown up while Gen Musharraf has been out of the country on a diplomatic tour.

He can count himself lucky that there are still some who believe that he is not directly responsible for Ms Mai's continuing travails. His supporters argue that as much in Pakistan is shaped by chaos as by design.

As such, they say the PR disaster over Ms Mai's affair was the likely handiwork of a "more loyal than the king brigade" that perpetually surrounds the president.

Once convinced that nothing good could come out of Ms Mai's planned visit to the US, these people simply set their minds on stopping her from leaving the country, the argument goes, irrespective of the cost to their leader's image.

Some of the more prominent members of this group have already surfaced in the shape of junior interior minister Shehzad Wasim and the prime minister's advisor on women's development Nilofer Bakhtiar.

Those taking a hard line on keeping Ms Mai in Pakistan can be easily found in parliament.

"Mukhtaran Mai should seek justice from Allah," senator Kulsoom Parveen reportedly said, arguing that being an eastern woman, Ms Mai had no business going abroad.

While President Musharraf tours Australia and New Zealand, his supporters are confidently arguing that heads will roll on his return.

There is no way, they argue, that the president will allow this "coterie of sycophants" to fritter away the goodwill that he has won over the last five years.

But if no heads roll and Ms Mai's predicament remains unresolved, many may be inclined to start thinking that Mr Kristof was perhaps not being insolent after all.


SEE ALSO
Travel ban on rape victim lifted
16 Jun 05 |  South Asia
Releases ordered in rape case
10 Jun 05 |  South Asia
Pakistan rape-case men rearrested
18 Mar 05 |  South Asia
Rape victim appeals to Musharraf
17 Mar 05 |  South Asia

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