THE Supreme Court verdict in Mukhtar Mai`s gang-rape case has finally been delivered and for many it is a deeply disappointing one. Since 2002, the issue had remained unresolved. The SC has now upheld a Lahore High Court verdict to acquit all but one accused found guilty by a trial court. While no one would advocate that those charged be sentenced without sufficient evidence, what must be kept in mind is that this is no ordinary case. The latter is, in fact, unprecedented in that Mukhtar Mai has pursued the issue very publicly in a society where women suffer sexual assault in silence. As such, her case has become symbolic of the struggle for women`s rights in Pakistan, and the outrage expressed by human rights groups at the verdict comes as no surprise. What has perhaps deepened their frustration is the apex court`s dogged pursuit of other issues it deems important, such as the NRO, various corruption scandals and the reappointment of certain government officers. It had given the impression of being a pro-people court by, for example, reviving the missing persons` cases and taking suo motu notice of increases in power tariffs. Coming from such an active SC, the failure to bring Mukhtar Mai`s attackers to justice, even if doing so would require further investigation, is a bitter pill to swallow.
The specifics of the verdict are also problematic – if a rape with multiple witnesses and such extensive media coverage goes unpunished, what Pakistani rape victim will try to obtain justice? The SC judgment also betrays insufficient sensitivity to social context; it is entirely believable, for example, that a Pakistani rape victim would need several days to decide to file an FIR and that her family would take some convincing to do so, both points raised by the court as weakening Mukhtar Mai`s case. And given the insufficient investigation capacity of Pakistani police in rape cases, which often suffer from delayed reporting and lack of witnesses, victim testimony must carry significant weight. Furthermore, the trial court verdict had already confirmed gang rape occurred, and one member of the three-judge SC bench held a dissenting opinion.
Given this context, the threshold of proof established by this verdict will all but ensure that victims will hesitate to speak out in the future. The SC`s decision has created a perception that justice was not done, and that has the potential to do serious harm to the cause of women`s rights going forward. It would be a shame if the case is not pursued further. The government would do well to ask the SC to review its verdict.