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Pakistani Officials Defend Decision to Ban Travel of Gang Rape Victim

Officials in Pakistan are defending the government's decision to temporarily prevent a gang rape victim from traveling abroad, saying some non-governmental organizations are using her case to malign Pakistan. The travel ban was lifted following harsh criticism from Washington.

Cabinet Minister for Women Development Nilofar Bakhtiar says the government is doing all it can to protect Mukhtaran Mai, and make sure her rapists are punished.

The minister tells VOA the travel ban has already been lifted, and was only imposed amid concerns that some human rights groups are using Ms. Mai's case to damage Pakistan's reputation.

"We will not let other people, who are driven by specific agendas, to hijack our cases," said Nilofar Bakhtiar. "The government has contributed a lot towards the well being, welfare of Mukhtaran Mai. And if she now has to travel, she is free to travel. There are no restrictions."

In 2002, Ms. Mai was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council in central Punjab province because of her brother's alleged sexual relations with a woman from a higher caste.

The Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case, after a lower court released 12 men detained in connection with the rape, citing insufficient evidence.

But human rights groups say the government does not appear fully committed to prosecuting the case. A leading human rights activist, Asma Jehangir, says conservative politicians are trying to influence the case to protect tribal traditions.

"The government is entirely to be blamed," said Asma Jehangir. "The government has manipulated the case, the government has manipulated the courts and the government is the one that is the danger to her life, more than anyone else."

The government says it continues to hold Ms. Mai's passport, but says it will return the travel documents in the next few days.

In an interview with VOA Saturday, Ms. Mai says officials have told her not to discuss her case, or make comments that could harm Pakistan.

She says she has rejected a government offer to join an official delegation traveling abroad to discuss women's rights in Pakistan. Ms. Mai says she has abandoned all plans to leave the country, but will not stop discussing her case, until her rapists are punished.