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Pakistan Supreme Court to Hear Gang-Rape Case

Pakistan's Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide the case of six men sentenced to death for raping a woman on orders from a village council, following two conflicting rulings by lower courts in the high-profile case.

The men were sentenced to death in 2002 after elders ordered the rape of Mukhtar Mai (search), 33, as punishment for her brother's alleged illicit affair with a woman from another family.

But on March 3, the convictions of five of the men were overturned and the sixth reduced to life in prison, sparking an outcry by human rights groups both in Pakistan and abroad.

The Federal Shariat Court (search), the nation's highest Islamic tribunal, threw out the acquittal Friday and reinstated the death sentences, a ruling the Supreme Court on Monday deemed unconstitutional.

Lawyers for both Mai and the defendants welcomed the decision, saying it would end the confusion in the case and settle the matter once and for all.

"It is for the best that the Supreme Court take this in its own hands," said attorney Ramzan Khalid Joya. "This is a right decision at the right time. It will end the ambiguity."

An official at the jail where the convicted men are being held said they would remain in prison until the Supreme Court rules. No date was set for the court decision, although it ordered both lower courts to send all relevant documents within a week.

The case has become a hot-button issue in this conservative Islamic country. Thousands of Pakistani women rallied in Multan (search) in eastern Punjab province last week, demanding justice and protection for Mai, who said she fears the men would seek revenge if released.

The Canadian High Commissioner on Tuesday visited Mai in her hometown of Meerwala, a village about 350 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad, to pledge money for a school she runs.

Mai denies that her 13-year-old brother ever had illicit relations with the woman and says the village council's decision to order her rape was made to cover up a sexual assault on the boy by men from the Mastoi clan, which enjoys local power.

Violence against women is common in deeply conservative Pakistan, particularly in rural areas where the government has little control. Hundreds of women are killed or brutally disfigured — often at the hands of their fathers, brothers or husbands — in so-called "honor" attacks.

The government promised to crack down on such attacks following Mai's rape, pushing through tougher sentencing laws, but women's rights activists say little has changed for most women.