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Pakistan: Protests, Demands for Justice Continue in Gang Rape Case

Unprecedented outrage and protests continue in Pakistan after a high court decision to release five men convicted of gang raping a woman as part of tribal justice to punish her family. The government says it will lodge an appeal to the Supreme Court. The victim, Mukhtaran Mai, says her life is now in danger.

Dozens of women's rights activists gathered in the Pakistani capital this week to continue protests against the release of five high profile gang rapists. The protesters are chanting down with the judicial system, long live Mukhtaran Mai, the victim of the gang rape. It is just one of many rallies nationwide putting Pakistan's justice system on trial.

At issue is last week's decision by a Lahore high court to free five of the six men sentenced to death for raping or ordering the rape of Ms. Mai in 2002. A tribal council deemed rape an appropriate punishment for Ms. Mai's family in a local dispute. There were some 200 witnesses to the sexual attack and Ms. Mai was forced to walk home almost naked after in front of her neighbors.

But the high court ruled the investigation was flawed and there was not enough evidence to uphold all the convictions. Human rights activists are calling the decision "shocking and disgraceful".

Nasreen Azhar - a prominent social worker here - says Pakistan's legal system needs an overhaul.

"It was an obvious crime everybody saw it. The whole village knew about it. And yet on some technical grounds they say that they did not have enough evidence or something," said Ms. Azhar. "The judicial system needs to be overhauled, needs to be improved tremendously from police investigation to the judges' awareness."

Ms. Mai - who since her attack has started a school to educate boys and girls in her poor rural village - was devastated. She collapsed in tears in the courtroom upon hearing the decision to overturn the convictions.

Speaking to reporters outside the court last week, she said she fears for her life because her rapists will again be her neighbors. She says that she feels danger and it is not only to her own life but also to her family.

The government has responded by stepping up security for Ms. Mai and Information Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed says this case will go to the highest court. "Yes, the government has decided that we will pursue this case in the Supreme Court," he said. "And we are already in contact with experts, the lawyers, and they are making this case and soon we are going to submit this appeal in the Supreme Court."

The case has shocked the country and again focused international attention on the treatment of women in Pakistan - where gang rapes and killing women to protect "family honor" are common in tribal and rural areas and generally go unpunished.

In 2004, the Pakistani government introduced the death penalty for honor killings but has done little to address rape.

In this country rape is almost impossible to prove under a controversial Islamic law, which requires a victim to produce four Muslim male witnesses or risk being prosecuted for adultery.

Nilofar Bakhtiar is Pakistan's minister for women's affairs. She says the government is trying to fix flaws in the Islamic law known as Hadood Ordinances but any amendments will require an intense public debate.

"When you are dealing with an Islamic law in an Islamic country, you just can't do it right away," said Ms. Bakhtiar. "You have to have consensus first. You have to lobby for it like we had to do for "honor killings". Hadood Ordinances [Islamic law] will be touched upon we will now work on the legislation."

Since the introduction of Hadood ordinances in the 1970's, human rights group say more than 60 percent of female prisoners in Pakistan's jails have been arrested under the Islamic law.

Ms. Mai is being seen as the most high profile and poignant symbol of the need to make Pakistan's justice system fairer for women.