Since going public regarding her ordeal, Mai (right) has become one of Pakistan's most prominent rights activists [EPA]
Five men accused of gang-raping a Pakistani woman in 2002 under orders from a village council have been acquitted by the supreme court of the country, their lawyer says.
Abdul Khalique, the sixth suspect in the case, had his life sentence upheld, Malik Saleem, the defence lawyer, said on Thursday.
The rape of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002 drew international attention after she decided to speak out about her ordeal, defying Pakistani norms.
She alleged that she had been gang-raped on the orders of a village council in the name of "honour" in Muzaffargarh district. The gang-rape was to be punishment because her brother - who was 12 years old at the time - had been judged to have offended the "honour" of a powerful clan by allegedly having an affair with one of its women.
Following the judgement, Mai said she had "lost faith" in the legal system, and she was now worried that the acquitted men would harm her.
Saleem said the five were acquitted because of the lack of eyewitness testimony.
The five men will now be freed once their paperwork is complete, he said.
The supreme court, to which Mai had appealed in 2005, was upholding a previous verdict issued by the Lahore high court. Asked if she would appeal the verdict, Mai said she would take a decision after consulting her lawyers.
"I'm disappointed. Why was I made to wait for five years if this decision was to be given?" Mai told the Reuters news agency.
Human rights activists in the country criticised the verdict shortly after it was issued.
Farzana Bari of Centre for Gender Studies at Qaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, told Al Jazeera: "We are devastated and frustrated with the court decision and feel that Mukhtar Mai had a strong case."
"The kind of lacunae we have in our criminal justice system, it is not geared to provide justice to women who are especially victims of sexual violence."
'Did not receive justice'
In July 2002, police had submitted a chargesheet against 14 suspects in an anti-terrorism court. That court found six suspects guilty, sentencing them to death, and acquitted the remaining eight.
After that verdict was appealed, the Lahore high court's Multan bench, acquitted five of the suspects, and commuted Khalique's sentence to life imprisonment.
"I did not receive justice today, hence I have left my fate in the hands of God," the Dawn newspaper quoted Mai as saying.
"The release of the suspects has put my life in grave danger."
Mai's courage in defying centuries-old customs won her human rights awards and made her a role model for many women in Pakistan. She used her fame to gather donations from the government and private citizens, which she then used to run a school for girls in her village.
She has vowed not to shut down her school.
"Life and death are in the hands of Allah ... I will not shut my school and other projects," she said.
Rights group condemnation
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, expressed dismay at the court's decision, saying that the attack on Mai had taken place "in full public view and the perpetrators were publically identified".
"Today's verdict by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the Mukhtaran Mai case reflects poorly on the Supreme Court," Ali Dayan Hasan, HRW's South Asia researcher, said.
Hasan said that HRW was particularly concerned about Mai's safety, and has called on the government to ensure her protection.
"This is a setback for Mukhtaran Mai, the broader struggle to end violence against women and the cause of an independent, rights-respecting judiciary in Pakistan," he said.