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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 June 2005, 14:50 GMT 15:50 UK
Ramifications of a gang rape
aamer ahmed khan
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Mukhtar Mai
Mukhtar Mai - her gang rape became international news

One of the most controversial cases in Pakistan's modern legal history is reaching its climax as the Supreme Court decides on whether to uphold the convictions against six men found guilty of the gang rape of a village woman, Mukhtar Mai.

There was international outrage when a lower court in March acquitted five of the men for lack of evidence.

Ms Mai was gang raped, allegedly on the orders of a village council because of a misdemeanour attributed to her younger brother.

The case has also turned into a fierce confrontation between President Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan's development (NGO) community, which he is reported to have accused of seeking to exploit Ms Mai's plight to blacken Pakistan's international image.

Most controversial is Gen Musharraf's decision to ban Ms Mai from travelling abroad.

'Faltering march'

"It is no longer a case in which those accused of raping Ms Mai are on trial." That is the view of one ordinary Pakistani, Karachi civil servant Naveed Zafar.

Ministers have accused NGOs of using Mukhtar Mai to attract more funding from western donors or to enhance their profiles.

Like millions of others in Pakistan and around the world, Mr Zafar has been keenly following the case.

"It is Pakistan's faltering march towards a more liberal ethos that is on trial."

There are perhaps as many people in Pakistan who would say Mr Zafar is being melodramatic as those inclined to agree with him.

And that is precisely what makes this case so controversial.

The spotlight in the Mukhtar Mai case, many say, is now just as much on Gen Musharraf government's stated agenda of enlightened moderation and the future of NGOs here as it is on the criminal justice system.

'Right decision'

Government supporters argue that in the furore surrounding the travel ban on Ms Mai, what has been entirely forgotten is the effort that the government has put into helping her.

For three years, it has provided Ms Mai the kind of protection that is normally accorded only to VIPs.

President Pervez Musharraf
Musharraf ordered a ban on Mai leaving the country

Also, while technically free after being acquitted by the Lahore High Court, all the men accused in her case still languish in prison under highly controversial public order laws.

Moreover, the government, an appellant in the case along with Ms Mai, has put together a large team of lawyers to argue her case in the Supreme Court.

Yet the decision to stop Ms Mai from travelling to the US to take up an invite from an NGO there has completely overshadowed the government's efforts on her behalf.

The BBC news website asked the prime minister's advisor on women's development, Nilofer Bakhtiar, if stopping Ms Mai from travelling may have done more damage than if she had been allowed to go.

"I don't want to get into that. All I want to say is that whatever decision the president took was the right one."

Ms Bakhtiar also said that President Musharraf had ordered the travel ban after hearing from his supporters in the US that the NGO in question there was planning to bring Ms Mai to the US with the intention of maligning Pakistan.

NGO 'regulation'

And here is where the government's agenda of "enlightened moderation" is under pressure.

Several Pakistani ministers have been bitterly critical of the NGOs' role in the affair. They have accused the NGOs of using Ms Mai to attract more funding from western donors or to enhance their profiles.

Mukhtar Mai with her mother
Mukhtar Mai with her mother - 'merely seeking justice'

In the aftermath of the travel ban controversy, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has ordered fresh legislation to "regulate" the working of the NGOs.

This, in the eyes of many, is an ominous development.

Salman Akram Raja, a lawyer who has previously assisted the government in drafting regulatory legislation for the NGOs, provides an interesting insight to the government's attitude towards NGOs.

"The government is very comfortable with NGOs involved purely with charity," he says.

"But the moment an NGO turns towards advocacy, it invites the government's suspicion because advocacy groups are expected to raise issues, most of which are likely to embarrass the government."

Mr Raja argues that the same principle applies to the treatment meted out to Ms Mai.

"For as long as she was a poor victim willing to accept charity, the government was with her," he says.

"But soon as she emerged as a rights' campaigner, the government became suspicious of her."

Bad news

This is bad news for NGO leaders hoping to use Ms Mai's case to draw attention to the gender imbalance that they say pervades every aspect of Pakistani life.

And they have seen the worst of this imbalance at play repeatedly.

Way back in 1984, when Pakistani women tried to protest against so-called Islamic legislation which reduced their status to half a witness in the law of evidence, they were brutally beaten up.

In the 1990s, Samia Sarwar Mohmand, a young Pathan girl who wanted to marry of her own free will was shot dead in the office of Pakistan's most relentless women's rights campaigner Asma Jehangir.

To this day, women are traded in settling disputes between warring tribes.

NGO leaders say that cases such as that of Ms Mai are their best bet of inviting the world's attention to such issues.

And forcing the world into taking note is critical to their success, the NGOs say, arguing that President Musharraf's government is more responsive to external pressures than to people within.

As such, they fear that irrespective of what may happen in Ms Mai's case, the government's renewed hostility towards NGOs is likely to be a major setback to their struggle.

Even if Ms Mai succeeds in her attempt to secure justice, life for liberal Pakistani NGOs may already have taken a turn for the worse.

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