ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's highest Islamic court on Friday threw out the acquittal of five men convicted of raping a woman on orders from a village council, saying a lower appeals court had no jurisdiction to rule on the case.
The decision by the Federal Shariat Court (search) was welcomed by the lawyer of Mukhtar Mai (search), a 33-year-old woman who said she was raped in 2002 after elders in her village ordered the attack as punishment for her brother's alleged illicit affair with a woman from another family.
"We welcome the decision, and we know our case is strong," said Ramzan Khalid Joya (search), Mai's lawyer. An attorney for the men, Mohammed Yaqub, said he had not yet had time to study the decision and would have no comment.
Six men, including village elder Faiz Mastoi, were sentenced to death in 2002, but on March 3 the sentences of five of them were overturned. A sixth man had his death sentence reduced to life in prison.
Mai, who has won praise for her bravery in coming forward to denounce the attack, wept as that ruling was read out.
The decision produced a firestorm of criticism from human rights groups both in Pakistan and around the world.
Thousands of Pakistani women rallied in Multan earlier this 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 Meerwala, a village about 350 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad, to pledge money for a school she runs.
In its decision Friday, the Federal Shariat Court ruled on technical grounds that the Multan tribunal had no powers to hear the case. It said it alone had the power to rule on appeals in rape cases.
The Shariat Court works separately from the normal legal system but has the power to overturn decisions involving Islamic law, such as in cases of rape, adultery and some cases of murder.
The court did not indicate when it would hear the appeal. All six men remain in jail.
Babar Awan, a senior advocate in Islamabad, said the ruling effectively annuls the Multan court's decision.
"The appellants went to the wrong forum to make the appeal against their convictions," he said.
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 the vast majority of women.