Let there be no doubt that had the Bush administration not condemned the government of Pakistan for barring the victim of a Pakistani gang rape from traveling abroad to tell her story, the woman would still be under house arrest in the village of Meerwala.
But the very fact that the U.S. had to intervene speaks volumes about the failure of President Pervez Musharraf to allow true democracy to flourish in his country. Gen. Musharraf has been under pressure from President Bush to keep a promise he made several years ago to remove the shackles that have prevented his people from experiencing freedom in all aspects of their lives.
Pakistan is an important ally of the United States in the war on global terrorism and has assisted -- critics continue to question the extent of its commitment -- in the search for Osama bin Laden, the world's leading terrorist. Bin Laden's Al-Qaida network was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on American soil.
However, the reality of Pakistan is illustrated by the case of Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang raped three years ago on orders of a traditional village council. The rape was punishment for her brother's affair with a woman from a powerful rival clan. Mai attracted worldwide attention after she defied threats and local customs and testified against the suspects. In August 2002, six men were sentenced to death, but three months ago a higher court overturned five of the convictions and reduced the death sentence of the sixth to life in prison.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz then ordered 12 men to be rearrested in the case, but they were freed last week.
Last Saturday, the government admitted that the rape victim had been placed on a list of people barred from traveling abroad.
Her crime? She had been invited by Amnesty International to attend a conference in the United States. She was scheduled to address human rights workers. Pakistan's government was obviously uncomfortable with the prospect of Mai's relating the details of the rape, discussing the failure of the criminal justice system and highlighting the dangers women face in that country.
As the Reuters news service put it Tuesday, "The case provoked national outcry and focused international attention on the treatment of women in the feudal-dominated rural Pakistan. Gang rapes and honor killings are common in rural Pakistan, where brutal tribal customs sometimes hold sway."
In reaction to Mai's being banned from leaving Pakistan, Christina Rocca, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, said the administration was "dismayed at the treatment being meted out to a courageous woman, Mukhtaran Bibi, who is herself a victim of a horrendous crime and is being denied the right to travel and tell her story."
Rocca's intervention resulted in the ban being lifted, but it came one day too late for her to participate in the Amnesty International conference.
That's unfortunate because, in the end, Pakistan's government was able to keep her out of the international spotlight. That does not mean her story should not be heard. She should be invited to address members of Congress, who have approved huge amounts of foreign aid to Pakistan at the urging of President Bush.