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Pakistan's Supreme Court set free five men today. They were accused of gang raping Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who won international acclaim for speaking out about her assault. It was the first time a woman in conservative Pakistan had gone public about rape.

From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that the Supreme Court's acquittal had stunned the victim and has enraged human rights groups.

JULIE McCARTHY: A three-member bench of Pakistan's Supreme Court acquitted all but one of the six accused of the gang rape. Abdul Khaliq will continue to serve a life term. Denunciations were swift. Mukhtar Mai, the humble victim of the rape, who had battled police and a legal system stacked against the poor, said she was deeply grieved by the court's decision. It came five years after a lower court found she had been raped by half a dozen men.

Ms. MUKHTAR MAI: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: I'm very sad, she said. Why was I made to wait five years if this was the decision to be given?

Mukhtar Mai maintains that the elders of her village in the Southern Punjab had ordered the rape. She says it was punishment because her adolescent brother was judged to have offended the honor of a powerful clan by allegedly having sex with one of its women. Mukhtar's brother was 12.

The Supreme Court said in a lengthy ruling that the prosecution's evidence against the accused rapists is not confidence-inspiring. Thus the benefit must go to the accused. But Mukhtar Mai says the court ignored an abundance of evidence.

Ms. MAI: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: The entire area knows that I was raped, she said. The entire area provided witnesses and told the media. Between 50 and 100 people were there, Mukhtar insists, and adds, even one of the elders confessed to hearing me cry and shout for them to stop. Why doesn't the court take all that into account, she asks.

Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, says through connivance, evidence can be destroyed. Others note in such a case involving influential villagers, witnesses could be dissuaded from testifying. Haroon notes that in only 5 percent of cases involving crimes against Pakistani women are convictions ever obtained.

Ms. ANIS HAROON (Chair, National Commission on the Status of Women): It reflects on this whole system that if you - it is encouraging for the perpetrators who see that, you know, how they can go scot-free. That is one reason that violence against women is increasing manyfold. It's multiplying.

McCARTHY: Ali Dayan Hasan, of Human Rights Watch, says Pakistan's judiciary had been ushering in a new era of human rights advocacy. But he says it took a step backwards today by essentially endorsing vigilante justice.

Mr. ALI DAYAN HASAN (Senior South Asia Researcher, Human Rights Watch): Village elders got together and thought it was a good idea that this dispute between these two tribes or sub-tribes would be settled by handing this woman over, OK? And the message the court has sent is that it doesn't matter.

McCARTHY: Mukhtar Mai says she is worried for her safety and is not inclined to appeal.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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