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ISLAMABAD, June 15: The government told the National Assembly on Wednesday that it had allowed Mukhtaran Mai to travel abroad. Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said the decision to remove the Mai’s name from the exit control list (ECL) had been taken on the instructions of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz as he replied to complaints made during the past few days by several parliament members. Some MNAs accused the government of putting her under house arrest.

“There are no restrictions on her movement; she can go wherever she wants to go,” the minister said while interrupting National Assembly proceedings when the house was discussing and voting on demands for grants for government ministries and departments as provided in the budget for fiscal year 2005-06.

The statement came a day after the United States also voiced its dismay at Mai Mukhtaran being prevented from travelling there and telling her story, a move that another government minister called interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

Mr Sherpao, who spoke when the prime minister was present in the house, said there had been no restrictions on her and that the government’s only concern was to provide her security and justice.

Mr Aitzaz Ahsan of the People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP), who is also Mukhtaran’s lawyer and has seen raising the issue in the house, welcomed the government’s decision. However, he aid it would have been better if it had come before the American concern became known.

Ms Mukhtaran told reporters in Islamabad on Tuesday that she was “virtually under house arrest” and that she had cancelled a planned trip to the United States because of her mother’s illness.

However, human rights activists feared that she had made the decision under pressure from authorities who did not want her to go abroad and speak about her ordeal.

Mr Ahsan, who earlier went to the prime minister’s desk and talked to him for a while, said he had urged Mr Aziz to remove her name from the ECL in order to give a positive message abroad rather than take steps that could depict the Pakistani society as barbarous.

Minister of State for Health Shahnaz Sheikh regretted American comments on Mukhtaran Mai’s case and asked: “Why should they interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign country?”

In the morning, Mr Ahsan said he had learnt that Mukhtaran Mai had been trying to contact him for legal advice but was apparently prevented by the authorities from meeting him.

He also quoted Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chairperson Asma Jehangir as telling him that Ms Mukhtaran was being pressurised to change her lawyer.

Nadeem Saeed adds from Multan: The government has confiscated the passport of Mukhtaran Mai, it was learnt on Wednesday evening.

She was reportedly taken to the US embassy in Islamabad amid tight security where she asked the officials to return her passport which she had submitted for the American visa.

Sources said that Mai’s passport was later on seized by the Prime Minister’s adviser Nilofer Bakhtiar. Mai Mukhtaran was told by the authorities that her passport would remain in the official custody for the time being.

Her passport was confiscated after removing her name from the ECL. Later, the government sent her back to her village Meerwala in Muzaffargarh district on Wednesday evening under “unprecedented” security umbrella, sources said.

Meanwhile, one of the 13 detained accused in the Meerwala case, Ramzan Pachaar, was released on Wednesday evening from the Muzaffargarh district jail after submitting two bail bonds of Rs 50,000 each. However, there are conflicting reports about his re-arrest. Muzaffargarh’s acting district police officer DSP Ijaz Baloch denied that the accused had been arrested again. “At least none has brought it into my knowledge even if this had happened,” he added.

The review board of the Lahore High Court had ordered on Friday last the release of the 13 accused in the case, who were detained under section three of the Maintenance of Public Order on the application of Mukhtaran Mai.

Eight of the accused were acquitted by the trial court on August 31, 2002, while five were acquitted by the Multan bench of the LHC on March 3 last. The victim had expressed threat to her and her family’s life as her ‘perpetrators’ were set free.