Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistani police have arrested 20 people in Punjab province accused of organising a village council that ordered a man to rape a 16-year-old girl in revenge for the earlier rape of his sister, according to officials.
The suspects were arrested from near the central city of Multan on Wednesday, and a hunt for seven more suspects was under way, Malik Rashid, the local police official heading the investigation, told Al Jazeera.
"It was not a formal village council, like has happened in the past," he said. "It was just a gathering of uncles and aunts [of the first victim] from that village, in the same area."
Cases had been registered regarding the two rapes, he confirmed.
The maximum punishment for rape under Pakistani law is the death penalty. Alternately, convicts may face imprisonment of up to 25 years.
|The suspects were arrested from near the central city of Multan on Wednesday [SS Mirza/AFP]|
On July 16, a 12-year-old girl was raped while working in the family fields just south of Multan, according to one of the police reports.
"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 Rashid.
"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 police report.
The second victim is 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.
New provincial law
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.
According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2011, Pakistan is the world's third most dangerous country for women, with domestic abuse, sexual harassment, acid attacks and economic discrimination common.
It 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 documented at least 2,446 cases of violence against women in the country, including 958 rapes and 158 cases of attacks where victims were either set on fire or attacked with acid.
The new law in Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, criminalised all forms of violence against women, including domestic, psychological and sexual violence, and established a toll-free hotline for reporting abuse.
It also mandated the establishment of shelters such as the one where the rapes in Multan were reported.
Village councils, typically consisting of local elders, 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.
"Their shameful act is now before the entire world," said local police official Rashid, who was en route to a conduct a raid in the hope of capturing the remaining suspects.
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