As the author of a 2006 book on the Mukhtaran Mai case and a former Islamabad-based Western female news correspondent, I must raise a voice of dissent amidst the shrill reaction to the Supreme Court’s acquittal of 13 of 14 men accused in Mukhtaran Mai’s case.
In 2005-2006, after many months painstakingly poring through every police statement, medical record, witness testimony, and cross-examination transcript in this case, coupled with multiple visits to Mirwala, Jatoi and Dera Ghazi Khan for extensive interviews with members of both sides of this case, I reached the same conclusion as the Supreme Court has in 2011. The Lahore High Court reached the same conclusion in 2005. Indeed, I would challenge anyone who has the opportunity to pore through all such records and interview members and associates of all sides in this case to come up with any conclusion other than that 13 of the 14 accused are innocent.
May I stress that fundamental to that conclusion (shared by myself, the Supreme Court and the Lahore High Court) is that Ms Mai is indeed a victim of a heinous crime. The question is: of what? The Supreme Court and Lahore High Court find that Ms Mai is a victim of rape, hence their maintenance of Abdul Khaliq’s conviction for rape.
It is my belief that Ms Mai is a victim of two heinous crimes here. One is sexual assault: the kind of sexual assault experienced by women forced to marry against their will, and by women handed over by their men folk as compensatory chattel to settle a feud.
Which leads me to what I believe is the paramount crime here: Vani. Under current laws, Ms Mai’s men folk would be convicted for handing her over to the Mastoi family to atone for her teenage brother’s alleged misbehaviour with a teenage Mastoi girl. The tradition of handing women over to atone for their male relatives’ wrongdoing, known also as Swara, was outlawed by the Pakistan government in January 2005.
The police and court records shows that both the prosecution and the Mastoi family agree that it was Ms Mai’s men folk who presented her to the Mastoi family after many hours negotiating, via a local cleric, to resolve a feud. The feud had erupted earlier that day when Mukhtaran’s brother Shakoor was seen with the Mastoi girl Salma in the sugarcane field between the two families’ homes.
The prosecution’s version of what happened next is well-known. There is also a little-credited defence version; the other side of the story. For what it’s worth, the defence version fits the pattern of many a feud and its resolution in rural Punjab and Sindh: to settle the feud, the perpetrator’s family hands over a female to the victim’s family to be married off to one of their men.
I have met the women of the Mastoi family and heard their vivid accounts of what happened that night. They showed me the shoddy room in their home where, they say, they saw Abdul Khaliq bring Mukhtaran Mai to spend the night with him after a ‘sharai nikah’, an on-the-spot marriage without a certificate. For what it’s worth, they recall Ms Mai being thrown out one or more days later and sent back to her family, in a state of disgrace.
What happened to Ms Mai was outrageous, unsolicited, and must be punished. But the evidence, cross-referenced with my own protracted field research and interviews, suggests that what happened is considerably different from what is alleged by the prosecution.
I would beseech anyone who is concerned with justice and human rights to examine this case in real detail, retrace its genesis and comb through the records, and ask themselves whether a dangerous miscarriage of justice lies beneath the famous Mukhtaran Mai story.
I urge the detractors of the Supreme Court’s brave decision to objectively examine whether the 13 acquitted men, who have each spent between six and nine years in jail despite earlier acquittals, have been wrongly accused and imprisoned.
Perhaps the most obvious wrongful imprisonment is of the eight men accused of being part of an alleged panchayat. These men, who lived 3.5 hours travel from Ms Mai’s village on the other side of the Indus, were acquitted in the original 2002 trial for want of evidence. It is worth reading what the original trial judge had to say about how those men came to be arrested and why he released them without charge. This is the same judge who convicted four others of gang-rape and two of aiding and abetment. Astonishingly, these eight acquitted men were re-arrested two and a half years later in reaction to the storms of outrage that followed the Lahore High Court’s 2005 acquittal of five out of six convicted men. They have been in jail for the six years since 2005, without charge. Where are the human rights advocates standing up for them?
Apart from a wealth of inconsistencies in statements to police and witness testimonies, the paucity of evidence affects many celebrated aspects of the prosecution story. The allegation that Shakoor was molested by three Mastoi males is pure fabrication and easily revealed as such on any study of the case. The claim of Ms Mai being paraded naked before hordes of people was thrown out in the original 2002 trial, yet nevertheless has embedded itself in many re-tellings by media and rights groups. The presentation of the Mastoi tribe as wealthier and more powerful than Ms Mai’s clan was discounted in the original 2002 trial, when police admitted under cross-examination that Ms Mai’s family owned more land and had more powerful connections than the Mastoi family, well before this story began.
It is also my belief that Ms Mai is a victim of characters around her who have used her, her family, the local police and courts for their own purposes. Talk to any lawyer in southern Punjab and they will tell you how often false cases are filed between enemies. It’s my belief that Ms Mai was shamefully taken advantage of and had little control over events once the charges, filed not by her or her family but by two unrelated men, went public.
The charge of gang-rape was brought to the police by the cleric Abdul Razzaq and a local journalist-cum-rights monitor who had heard rumours after Razzaq made claims in a Friday sermon. Ms Mai was not involved in the lodging of charges. Some hours later, she was hauled into the police station unceremoniously in the back of a police truck. There she found a statement already written by the cleric in her name. She was told to attest it with a thumbprint. As is well-known, at that time she could neither read the statement, nor write her name. How was she to know what she was attesting with her thumb?
The next day the charge was in a local newspaper, the following day in national and international press, and just three days later Ms Mai had a cheque for 500,000 rupees in her hand from President Pervez Musharraf. No investigation had taken place, and Ms Mai was already both an international heroine and wealthier than any illiterate villager from a wretched Indus backwater could have ever dreamed.
The writer is a former AFP news editor