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Pakistani woman asks Supreme Court to reinstate convictions in rape case

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A Pakistani woman who was gang-raped three years ago on tribal council orders took her case from her village to the capital yesterday, demanding the Supreme Court reinstate the death penalty against five of her alleged attackers.

Mukhtar Mai, 36, has won international praise for having the courage to speak out about the assault, which highlights a brutal form of tribal justice prevalent in parts of the Muslim country.

Rights activists have accused the government of trying to silence her, and she was barred by General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, from visiting the United States to talk about her case. The government lifted the ban last week after Washington protested.

Mai appeared happy and relaxed at the hearing yesterday, held under heavy police guard. Diplomats and dozens of human rights activists congregated in a show of support.

The June 2002 rape was ordered by a council of elders in the village of Meerwala, about 350 miles southwest of Islamabad, as punishment for an alleged affair by Mai's 13-year-old brother with a woman. Mai says the allegation was fabricated to cover up a sexual assault against her brother by men from her Mastoi clan.

Eschewing a culture of shame that often surrounds rape victims here, Mai made her case public, leading to the conviction of six men who were sentenced to death. Eight others were acquitted.

But in March an appeals court overturned the convictions of five of the men, and reduced the death sentence of the sixth to life in prison, citing a lack of evidence.

That same month, the country's top Islamic court stepped in and reinstated the convictions of the six men. But days later the Supreme Court intervened, questioning whether the Islamic court had jurisdiction in the case, and decided to hear Mai's appeal itself.

Mai, who has complained of authorities' restrictions on her movements, arrived from Meerwala to attend yesterday's hearing.

She said she expected the nation's highest court to uphold the original verdict in the case.

''I am expecting the Supreme Court to give the same kind of ruling," Mai, wearing a yellow shawl over her head, told reporters outside the courtroom.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer for Mai, said she also was appealing the eight men's acquittals.

A three-member panel of judges adjourned the court until today after hearing initial arguments in the case.

Since her assault, Mai has become a prominent women's rights activist.

Although she grew up illiterate, Mai has helped set up a school for girls in her village, mainly with donations from supporters, many of them in the United States.

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