Islamabad: Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Lahore High Court’s 2005 verdict and said the six men accused of raping Mukhtar Mai should be immediately freed if they are not wanted in any other cases.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice Shakirullah Jan upheld the life sentence given to one of the accused, Abdul Khaliq.

Mai expressed disappointment at the Apex Court's verdict, saying she no longer trusted Pakistan's judicial system.

"I have waited and endured problems for five years. If they had to give such a verdict, why did they cause me so many problems for five years? They need not have taken suo motu
notice if they had to uphold the earlier judgement," she told the media in her hometown of Meerwala in Punjab province.

Mai, who broke down and wept after hearing the Apex Court's ruling, said she was undecided about appealing against the verdict.

"I cannot say anything. I will consult my lawyer but I have no faith in any court now.    I only have faith in God's court," she said.

"The release of the suspects has put my life in grave danger," she said and acknowledged that the original FIR filed in 2002 against those accused of raping her may have had flaws
but pointed out that she was illiterate at the time.

"What is my fault in this? Why is the court punishing me?" she asked.

NGOs and civil society groups protested the Supreme Court's decision, saying the verdict proves that no woman is safe in Pakistan.

Noted women's rights activist Farzana Bari said the judicial process for handling rape is flawed and civil society groups would not accept the Apex Court's order.

Who is Mukhtar Mai?

In 2002, Mai was a seamstress in Meerwala, a small village in Punjab, when her 12-year-old brother was falsely accused of having an affair with a woman from a powerful clan.

To avenge the woman's honour, the village council ordered her gang-rape. While other women brutalised in so-called "honour crimes" have been shunned, Mai's family embraced her and took her to the authorities.

The 'imam' in her village preached against the outrage.

In June 2002, a case was filed under an Islamic law and the Anti-Terrorism Act against 14 suspects, including two members of the village council.

In August the same year, a lower court in Punjab awarded the death sentence to six of the accused, including the two village council members, and acquitted the other eight suspects.

In March 2005, the Multan bench of the Lahore High Court acted on an appeal filed by the accused and struck down the lower court's order.

It acquitted five of the six accused and converted the death sentence give to Abdul Khaliq, one of the main accused, to life imprisonment.

Soon after, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the matter and began hearing the case. Mai's struggle for rights became a campaign for other deprived women.

With the money she received as compensation from courts after a three-year legal battle, she built her village's first girl's school and launched the Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare Organisation.

Agencies