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Haunted By Lost Honor

Released on bail, a man charged with rape returns home to threaten his victim.

Compass Direct (07/07/06) – Seated across from the victim of sexual violence with her family in their one-room dwelling, I was uneasy that the accused rapist and his relatives lived just a few blocks away.

Ribqa Masih had to live here in daily terror without the kind of security I had for the evening excursion to her village – two carloads of men and an armed policeman.

Freed on bail, a Pakistani charged with her rape has continued to threaten the young Christian woman who accused him of pressuring her to convert to Islam by violating her.

“I’m afraid to go outside,” said Masih before breaking into tears. “Mentally, I’ve been too disturbed to study.”

Ribqa Masih had finished her high school examinations and was awaiting the results in September 2005 when wealthy Muslim neighbors in Gorala, near Faisalabad , kidnapped and raped her, she said. Ten months later, Masih, 19, still needs to retake two of the tests if she wants to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

One of the men whom Masih charges with raping her, Muhammad Kashif, was granted bail on a technicality the law gives to criminal suspects suffering from illness. He has psoriasis: red, dry patches of skin.

“Psoriasis did not stop him from raping Masih,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Masih’s lawyer. Nor did it keep Kashif from fleeing police in a Faisalabad courtroom last October when his initial request for pre-arrest bail was rejected.

But in December last year, the Lahore High Court freed the rape suspect.

Last month the same court denied bail to Ghulam Abbas Hussain, the other man accused of raping Masih. With Hussain in prison, the Masih family said Kashif has pressured them to stop legal proceedings.

“Time after time,” Masih’s father said, “Kashif has threatened me on the telephone, telling me to drop this case.”

‘Get It Over With’

My security crew and I had arrived at Gorala village after dark, almost two hours late due to losing our way in the grid of barren roads outside of Faisalabad .

I was eager to make up for lost time, but my host, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, cautioned me.

“Wait, let the policeman get out first,” he said. The officer eased out of the car and displayed his gun and uniform to the empty dirt street.

Then I was quickly ushered to a door in the concrete wall, through an empty room with several chairs and out into the darkness of the courtyard on the other side.

Before my eyes could adjust, I sensed people all around me. The courtyard was full of dark-skinned children hanging back with wide eyes. Gray-haired elders pushed forward and placed their hands on my head in blessing, muttering warm words I could not understand.

For a moment I relaxed. The walled communal area was surrounded by rooms inhabited by Masih’s extended relatives.

Ribqa Masih greeted me. “We were praying that you would get here safely.”

Her next words were far from reassuring. “It got so late, and anything could have happened to you, because all the people who are accused of raping me live in this village.”

My translator, a local, whispered to me, “I’m terrified, let’s get this over with.”

I did not ask Masih about being raped in September 2005. We all knew the story. A Muslim friend, Humaira Hussain, had invited Masih to visit the nearby city of Faisalabad with her. Her brother, Ghulam Hussain, and his friend, Muhammad Kashif, met the two young women upon their arrival.

Masih said they offered her a drink of water. The next thing she remembered was waking up in a locked room where Ghulam Hussain and Kashif raped her throughout the night.

Her attackers told her to convert to Islam or they would kill her and her family, Masih said. The Christian woman said that she believed them because they belonged to influential landowning families in her village.

In January 2005, a local court gave Humaira Hussain and her mother bail. The two women are charged with assisting the rapists.

Ongoing court hearings and threats from her attackers have made it impossible for Masih to forget her kidnapping. “The hardest thing for me has been to see the way that this has affected my father, mother and relatives,” she said. “They have been so good to me.”

‘Prostitutes’

The stress of the last months has worn on Masih’s family.

Sitting next to her daughter, Masih’s mother was slow to talk or smile. She had lost weight and suffered from depression, her husband told me. Several of Masih’s younger siblings had begun attending school in Faisalabad because their Muslim classmates in the village started calling them “prostitutes.”

Masih’s father was proud that Ghulam Hussain’s bail had been rejected in the Lahore High Court only the day before my visit. But the father of seven admitted that attending court hearings had made it impossible to hold a steady job for the past 10 months.

Lack of police cooperation added to the family’s difficulties. Almost a year into the case, law enforcement has yet to complete the challan, a report used as court evidence in Pakistani criminal trials.

“It could have been written within 14 days,” said Sindhu, who took Masih’s case pro bono. The lawyer had accused police officials of siding with the rape suspects last October and requested that the court assign new officers to handle the case.

Jailing the Victims

Masih’s rape is not an isolated occurrence. A Pakistani women’s aid organization reported 2,412 abductions of women and children nationwide in 2005.

But many women do not have the courage and family support to pursue justice in the face of unfair laws and corrupt bureaucracy. Nearly 50 percent of women who report rape are jailed under the country’s Islamic Hudood Ordinances that criminalize extra-marital sex, the Peace Council of Pakistan has found.

The law requires a rape victim to produce four male Muslim witnesses who are “truthful persons” and “abstain from major sins.”

Near Masih’s home village, another woman from a religious minority has struggled to prosecute police officers she claimed abducted and raped her. Sonia Naz made international headlines in August 2005, going public with her rape allegedly at the hands of Faisalabad police.

Since then, the Ahmadi woman’s alleged rapists, including the Faisalabad superintendent of police, have been released on bail. Naz’s husband divorced her, and her in-laws rejected her because of the “disgrace” she had brought on the family, Pakistani press reported.

But Pakistani rapists do not always walk free. Authorities hung four men in Faisalabad last week for violating a Christian girl seven years ago. Their appeals to the Lahore High Court, Supreme Court and the president of Pakistan had been turned down.

Rare Support

In Masih’s village, a local Muslim politician has stood by Masih’s family, testifying that Kashif threatened the Christians. Mohammad Latif had negotiated with Hussain and Kashif for Masih’s return after the woman first disappeared.

The Muslim village council member rose to greet me as I exited Masih’s home. He had filled the formerly empty dirt street with a dozen men sitting in chairs.

Our pleasantries were cut short by my anxious host. Further down the road two Muslim clerics had stopped to stare.

Speeding back to the relative safety of Faisalabad , I thought again about Masih’s last words. “I’ve realized now that if a girl leaves home for only a single night, the respect she had before she will never get back.”

But because Masih’s family has supported her instead of disowning her, she may be one of Pakistan ’s luckier rape victims.