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ISLAMABAD, June 28: The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the re-arrest of all 13 men accused of involvement in the gang-rape of Mukhtaran Mai and designated them as under-trial prisoners.

The court passed the order after suspending the ruling of the Lahore High Court overturning the anti-terrorist court convictions of the five main accused in 2002.

After culmination of a two-day preliminary hearing on a suo motu and nine appeals against LHC-Multan bench order, the apex court directed the Inspector General of Punjab to immediately arrest the accused and keep them in judicial custody till the appeals were decided. The accused should be treated as under-trial prisoners, Chief Justice-designate Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said in a short order.

On March 3, 2005, LHC-Multan bench acquitted five of them on an appeal and commuted the sentence of the sixth [Abdul Khaliq] to life imprisonment.

“For reasons to be recorded later, leave to appeal is granted in all the petitions and in view of the circumstances, operation of the LHC-Multan Bench is suspended, non-bailable warrants of arrest of the accused, except Abdul Khaliq, be issued while Inspector General of Punjab is directed to arrest and keep them in judicial custody by treating them as under-trial prisoners, pending final disposal of appeals,” the order said.

Moments after the short order, Mukhtaran Mai, surrounded by a horde of development workers, received hugs, kisses and congratulations, while local and international media representatives rushed to record her comments.

“I am very pleased with the order,” said Mukhtaran Mai with a smile. She brushed aside queries about plans to travel abroad in the near future.

Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan and Justice (retd) Chaudhry Mushtaq, representing the Punjab government, told reporters later that the court order covered all the thirteen accused, except Abdul Khaliq. The accused are Ghulam Farid, Mohammad Fiyaz and Allah Ditta, awarded death sentence by the trial court while Faiz Mohammad and Mohammad Ramzan, awarded life imprisonment and Mohammad Aslam, Allah Dita son of Jan Mohammad, Khalil Ahmed, Ghulam Hussain, Hazoor Bux, Rasool Bux, Asim and Nazar Hussain (acquitted by ATC).

A woman in her early 30s, Mukhtaran Mai was repeatedly raped on the orders of the panchayat of the village Meerwala Jatoi in Multan district in June 2002, in reprisal for her brother’s alleged affair with a woman of the Mastoi tribe.

Attorney General Makhdoom Ali Khan told the Supreme Court that gang-rape cases were considered as acts of terrorism because they disrupted public order in a society and stigmatized a woman for life.

Citing cases both from Pakistani and Indian jurisprudence, Makhdoom Ali Khan said that the apex courts of the two countries had held that delay of eight or ten days in reporting such incidents could be condoned besides sole testimony of a victim, in gang-rape case, was sufficient for conviction.

Advocate General Punjab Aftab Iqbal told the court that the provincial government was compelled to detain the five acquitted accused under maintenance of public order (MPO) as they were hurling threats against family members of the victim.

Chaudhry Mushtaq asked the court to suspend the high court judgment as it failed to appraise evidence on the touchstone of principles laid down by the apex court for safe dispensation of justice in criminal cases.

Aitzaz Ahsan said the instant case was not a simple case of gang-rape rather an offence of terror.

He said the instant case was a case of attitude and perspective as women were being used as a bargaining tool.

Lauding the victim’s courage, he said that Mukhtaran despite being illiterate and powerless was fighting against injustice and had not succumbed to pressure.

Advocate Malik Mohammad Aslam, the legal counsel of Abdul Khaliq, said the court should decide the matter with care.