Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday freed five men accused in the notorious gang-rape of a woman under orders from a village council in 2002, angering the victim and human rights groups. The ruling left just one of the initial 14 suspects in prison.
Mukhtar Mai was assaulted after the council in her village in Punjab province ordered she be raped as punishment for her 13-year-old brother's suspected affair with a woman of a higher caste. She attracted global sympathy and much international media coverage by shunning custom and speaking out about her ordeal.
Fourteen men were originally accused in the case, but a lower court acquitted eight. In 2005, an appeals court acquitted five out of the six remaining defendants, saying witness statements contradicted the prosecution case.
The Supreme Court upheld that ruling Thursday, said defense lawyer Malik Saleem. It also upheld the life sentence handed down to the sixth man.
Mai said she would not request another review of the case.
"I am scared these 13 people will come back to my village and harm me and my family," Mai told The Associated Press. "I have lost faith in the courts, and now I am leaving my case to the court of God. I am sure God will punish those who molested me."
Rights activists condemned the decision, saying it left women even more insecure.
"This is a setback for Mukhtar Mai, the broader struggle to end violence against women and the cause of an independent rights-respecting judiciary in Pakistan," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Pakistan's criminal justice system has a very low conviction rate, in large part because police, prosecutors and judges are underequipped, undertrained, corrupt and beholden to the rich, powerful and politically connected in the districts where they serve.
Given this, many people turn to village councils to dispense justice based on tribal traditions. They sometimes order women beaten or killed.
Mai's decision to go public brought an international spotlight on the struggles of women in the South Asian country, and earned her many plaudits. She was named Glamour magazine's Woman of the Year, and now runs a school in her village of Meerwala.