(New York) - The Pakistani government should petition for the full bench of the Supreme Court to review its decision to acquit five men accused of gang-raping a woman in 2002 under orders from a village council, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 21, 2011, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court upheld a 2005 ruling by the provincial Lahore High Court acquitting five of the six men accused of the crime. The panel upheld a sentence of life in prison for the sixth defendant, Abdul Khaliq.
"The Supreme Court's ruling highlights the deep flaws in Pakistan's criminal justice system when prosecuting violence against women," said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. "The failure to ensure justice in what by all accounts was a straightforward prosecution shows the justice system's appalling disregard for women's rights."
Mukhtar Mai, a villager from Muzaffargarh district in Punjab province, was gang-raped on the orders of a village council. Her case drew widespread domestic and international outrage after she decided to speak out about her ordeal. Her courage in the face of death threats transformed her into an international women's rights icon, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch called upon Pakistan's federal government and the Punjab provincial government to take all necessary measures to protect Mukhtar Mai who has previously received death threats. Mukhtar Mai reacted to the Supreme Court decision by expressing fear for her life.
In 2005, the Lahore High Court ruled that the prosecution had not proved that an informal village council had ordered the gang-rape. Because the court appeared to have disregarded considerable evidence in the public domain, the Supreme Court took jurisdiction of the case. Pakistani law allows for the Supreme Court to open proceedings on its own initiative (suo moto) and order reinvestigations.
While the Supreme Court's intervention was a positive move, the court should have taken steps within its power to order the police and prosecutor to address glaring omissions in the case record, Human Rights Watch said.
"Since Pakistan's Supreme Court reasserted its independence in recent years, it has not hesitated summoning police and other officials to the courtroom," Adams said. "It is not clear why the court didn't do this in one of the most important tests of women's rights in memory."
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the handling of this case will further erode faith in Pakistan's justice system and emboldens those in authority who seek to violate the rights of women and other at-risk groups. The government should urgently identify mechanisms by which local administrations can monitor the conduct of informal village and tribal councils and intervene in instances where they have acted beyond their authority, Human Rights Watch said.
"The authorities should ensure that informal village and tribal councils act in accordance with the law and respect women's rights," Adams said. "The government needs to send a signal that local leaders cannot take the law into their own hands."