Pakistani police have arrested four people in Punjab province, including the head of a village council who allegedly sanctioned the rape of a 16-year old girl to avenge an earlier rape.
Sabina Karim, a local police official, said the suspects were arrested near the central city of Multan on Thursday.
That brings the total number of arrests to 24. At least three suspects remain at large.
"Four of the main accused have been arrested last night. We will get a remand from the magistrate and then we will interrogate them," a local police official told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan's Supreme Court has also taken notice of the case.
The country’s chief justice ordered a high-level investigation on Thursday into the rapes and the family council’s alleged orders.
Cases have been registered against members of the council under sections of Pakistani law dealing with forcing a woman into marriage and abetment of a crime.
On July 16, a 12-year-old girl was allegedly raped while working in the family fields just south of Multan, according to a copy of the police report seen by Al Jazeera.
"My daughter [...] was cutting grass in the fields on July 16, 2017, at around 2pm when ... she was covered in a cloth [by her attackers] and forcibly raped," her mother told police.
Following that attack, members of the victim's family gathered together and resolved to rape a member of the alleged attacker's family in revenge, said Malik Rashid, a local police official.
The two families were related to one another, he said.
"On the night of July 18, 2017, at about 2am I was sleeping with my children in my house when [...] my 16-year-old daughter was taken away [by three men]," said the second victim's mother in a separate police report.
The second victim iss the sister of the alleged attacker in the first rape, said Rashid.
"We implored the culprits to leave my daughter alone, but [they] threatened us that if anyone came forward they would be killed," said the second victim's mother.
Cases have been registered against the perpetrators of both rapes.
The maximum punishment for rape under Pakistani law is the death penalty.
Alternatively, convicts may face imprisonment of up to 25 years, depending on the nature of the case.
The rapes were reported at a government-run Violence Against Women Centre in Multan, the first such centre set up under a new provincial law designed to enhance protection for women that was passed last year.
Both the girls were staying at the woman's shelter and were due to meet the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister, later on Thursday, AFP news agency reported.
Pakistan ranks 130th on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, and 143rd out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.
Last year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) documented at least 2,446 cases of violence against women in the country, including 958 rapes and 158 cases of attacks in which victims were either set on fire or attacked with acid.
Village councils - known as a jirga or panchayat - typically consist of local elders and are a traditional means of dispute resolution in rural Pakistan, where the formal legal system is not always accessible. Such councils do not, however, hold any legal standing.
The council that ordered the rape consisted only of family members of the first rape victim, and was not a body that drew from the local community, said Rashid, the police official.
"The [village council] system was brought about in the subcontinent at a time when we did not have courts or the rule of law as we have today," said Mehdi Hasan, HRCP’s chairperson.
"This is a 400-year-old system, and to keep it in place even today is damaging both to democracy and to the rule of law."
Mukhtaran Mai case
Last year, a 16-year-old girl was drugged, killed and her body burned after a similar ruling by a village council in the northern Pakistani town of Makol.
A panchayat was also involved in one of Pakistan’s most infamous cases of sexual violence against women, when in 2002 a council ordered the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai after her brother was falsely accused of rape.
Mai took her attackers to court and has since championed the rights of women in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Thirteen of the 14 men accused of the crime were acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2011.
"Up until now in all these incidents, no culprit has been punished," said Hasan.
"Until the culprits are punished strictly and panchayat members face the law, we will continue to see such cases."
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.
Source: Al Jazeera News