Pakistan Rearrests Alleged Rapists

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered the rearrest of 13 men acquitted of gang-raping a villager whose case has drawn international attention to the treatment of women in this deeply conservative country, court officials and a lawyer said.

The ruling came a day after the victim, Mukhtar Mai, in a dramatic appearance at the Supreme Court, appealed a lower court ruling that acquitted five of the men in March. The other eight men were acquitted by a trial court in 2002.

By confronting her attackers, Mai has defied tradition in a country where rape victims often suffer in silence for fear that they will be shunned by their families if they come forward.

"I am happy, and I hope those who humiliated me will be punished," Mai told reporters after hearing the verdict Tuesday. Outside the courtroom, dozens of women hugged and congratulated a relaxed and smiling Mai, who was dressed in the traditional Shalwar kameez, or trousers and shirt, with a blue and green shawl covering her head.

"I was expecting justice from the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court has done justice," she said.

Mai was raped in June 2002 on the orders of a council of village elders in Meerwala, allegedly in retaliation for her 13-year-old brother's illicit affair with a woman from a higher-caste family. Mai and her family deny any affair ever took place and say the brother was in fact assaulted by members of the other family.

A trial court in 2002 sentenced six men to death and acquitted eight others in Mai's rape. But in March of this year, the High Court in Punjab province, where Meerwala is located, acquitted five of the men and reduced the death sentence of the sixth to life in prison.

The Supreme Court in its ruling Tuesday suspended the High Court decision. All 13 men will be retried at a date as yet undecided, said Malik Salim, a lawyer for one of the suspects.

The court ruled that the men would be considered suspects -- rather than convicts -- until it reaches its final decision on their guilt and possible sentencing. "The Supreme Court will now look at the entire evidence in the case, conduct a hearing into it and will make a decision whether to convict the suspects or acquit them," Salim said.

In the years since the assault, Mai has become a prominent activist for women's rights and has helped set up a school in her impoverished farming village, mainly with donations from her supporters.

In recent weeks, Mai and human rights activists have criticized the government for restricting her movements and banning her travel abroad. Mai was planning to go to the United States on the invitation of a human rights group, but the government put her name on a roster of people banned from traveling overseas. The move was strongly criticized by the United States, and Pakistan lifted the restriction.