MULTAN, Pakistan — A Pakistani court yesterday overturned the conviction of a village elder and four other men who had been sentenced to death for purportedly ordering a woman gang-raped as punishment for her brother’s illicit sex with a woman from another family, a defense attorney said.
The rape of the woman in 2002 in a mud-brick house in a village in central Pakistan made world headlines and led the government to promise sweeping changes to end centuries of so-called “honor” killings and attacks.
Six men, including village council chief Faiz Mastoi, were later convicted and sentenced to death. But the court overturned the sentences yesterday, citing a lack of evidence. Mr. Mastoi and four others were ordered released and the sixth man’s death sentence was reduced to life in prison, said Ramzan Joya, an attorney for the woman.
The woman, Mukhtar Mai, was in court and wept upon hearing the court’s decision.
“I am in pain. I will ask my lawyer to challenge this decision,” she told reporters. Miss Mai came forward publicly after the attack in an effort to press the government to seek justice, and her name has been widely published. She has been honored by human rights groups in Pakistan for her courage.
Mr. Joya confirmed that he would appeal the verdict, and it was not clear whether the men would be released immediately. None was present in court at the time of the ruling.
In their ruling, judges on the High Court said there were contradictions in statements of witnesses and the case prepared by the prosecution, Mr. Joya said.
Defense attorney Pervez Aftab said he was happy with the decision.
The ruling angered human rights activists who have been urging the government for several years to enact legislation that would strip tribal councils of their power to mete out punishments.
“I am shocked,” said Shahnaz Bukhari, a leading women’s activist in Islamabad. She said Miss Mai’s case was not “investigated honestly.”
“Mukhtar Mai is not safe. These resourceful people who were convicted will seek revenge on that poor woman,” she said.
Mr. Joya said his client had made a bold decision by raising her voice against the rape in the village of Meerwala, about 350 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad.
The woman, who still lives in the village along with her family, has said she begged the attackers not to rape her, but they ignored her pleas.
The victim’s family is from the Gujar clan, and the attackers were from a clan considered socially higher called Mastoi.
The woman has denied her brother had relations with a women from the Mastoi clan. She said the clan fabricated this story to cover up another incident in which her brother was purportedly sexually assaulted by Mastoi men.