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Gang rape forces Pakistan tribal justice rethink

Bibi (L), seen here with her distraught mother
Bibi (L), seen here with her distraught mother  

From Ash-har Quraishi
CNN Islamabad Bureau Chief

(CNN) -- Mukhtara Bibi on Saturday walked into an anti-terrorism court in Punjab, Pakistan to face the four men accused of gang raping her.

Bibi testified that despite begging for mercy, she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by four male acquaintances.

The assault shocked the world and made international headlines because a ten-man tribal council allegedly ordered the rape as a form of justified punishment.

The men allegedly committed the rape as punishment for a crime they said the woman's brother committed.

The tribal council involved is also on trial for their role in the crime.

Meanwhil, in the city of Mianwali, about 200 km (125 miles) southwest of the capital, Islamabad, four convicted murderers on death row offered eight female family members in marriage to the family of their victims -- the youngest girl only five-years old.

The offering was in exchange for forgiveness and clemency.

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"Obviously it hurts me," says the father of one of the girls. "This is my child. But it is a tradition in our clan. We didn't have a choice, it was a matter of saving lives."

But national outrage over the case forced federal authorities to halt the agreement -- in doing so stirring a re-examination of tribal council practices.

"It's the powerful one with more muscles that gets their way around. Over the years, not only now, we have felt that they have been particularly discriminatory against women because they don't apply law, they apply perceived social values ... and this is exactly what has happened in these two cases," says human rights attorney Asma Jehangir.

Under the Pakistani constitution there are two types of jurisdiction.

Four men accused of gang rape, front, and 10 members of a tribal council that allegedly ordered the rape are led out of a  local court by police in Dera Ghazi Khan
Four men accused of gang rape, front, and 10 members of a tribal council that allegedly ordered the rape are led out of a local court by police in Dera Ghazi Khan  

The tribal areas in the northeast of Pakistan are recognized as a separate entity where normal laws do not apply.

Then there are the regions that under direct federal control.

The trouble, say lawmakers, is areas that technically fall under federal law but still hold on to their centuries old tradition of tribal justice.

"Our basic area of problem is the gray areas that where you apply the federal laws but the mindset of the people is still more akin to the tribal systems," Pakistani Federal Law Minister Khalid Ranjha says.

"It's a tribal mindset which of course is not in line with the federal laws and therefore despite the law being there, they keep on conforming to their own customs."

But human rights activists say it is the government that turns a blind eye to tribal justice where federal law should apply because it fills a vacuum formed by an already bogged down system.

"The legal system has almost collapsed in this country and the governments have not in the past many years tried to discourage or dissuade people from becoming self-appointed judges and this has sort of given them an unofficial patronage and people begin to recognize them as an alternate form of justice," Jehangir says.

Government officials and human rights activists agree that public awareness is the key to stopping illegal tribal decisions from eclipsing federal law.

That's a sentiment echoed by Mukhtara Bibi.

After testifying for the first time on Saturday, she tells CNN she is confident that the law -- the federal law -- will prevail and is ready to face cross-examination next week.




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