January 21, 2006

Heeding Pakistani Protest, U.N. Blocks Talk By Rape Victim

The New York Times

UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 20 – Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman whose defiant response to being gang-raped by order of a tribal court brought her worldwide attention, was denied a chance to speak at the United Nations on Friday after Pakistan protested that it was the same day the country’s prime minister was visiting.

Ms. Mai had long been scheduled to make an appearance called “An Interview With Mukhtar Mai: The Bravest Woman on Earth” in the United Nations television studios, sponsored by the office for nongovernmental organizations, the Virtue Foundation and the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights.

But on Thursday night the organizers were informed that the program would have to be postponed because of Pakistan’s objections.

Ms. Mai is leaving New York on Saturday so the effect was to cancel her appearance.

Asked at a news conference why Pakistan had taken the action, the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, said: “I have no idea. You have informed me and so have some other people as I was walking in. I don’t know how the place functions.”

The Pakistani Mission did not return calls seeking comment.

In 2002, a village council sentenced Ms. Mai to be gang-raped for the supposed misconduct of her brother. Pakistani women in such circumstances often commit suicide, but Ms. Mai instead successfully challenged her rapists in court. She gave the compensation money she received to schools in her remote district.

On a previous visit to New York in November, Ms. Mai, also known as Mukhtaran Bibi, was hailed in a video tribute by Laura Bush at a Lincoln Center banquet as a person who “proves that one woman really can change the world.”

Mr. Aziz is scheduled to see President Bush in Washington next week.

This was not the first time that Pakistan’s government had interfered in Ms. Mai’s travels. President Pervez Musharraf blocked her from taking a trip to the United States in June and then relented last fall when Glamour magazine honored her as its “Woman of the Year.”

Asked why the United Nations bowed to the Pakistani protest, Shashi Tharoor, the under secretary general for communications, said he could not comment on this specific case. But, he said: “As a general principle, indeed there are written instructions guiding the holding of any event on United Nations premises in which we are obliged to take into account views formally expressed by member states. This is a building and an organization that belongs to the member states.”

Recounting the 11th-hour nature of the decision, Joseph Salim, the executive director of the Virtue Foundation, a New York-based human rights charity, said, “Yesterday, as we were going about a walk-through, getting our ID badges, they suddenly told us that because this event was considered by the Pakistan government as embarrassing to them, they were going to block it.”

An e-mail message from Meena Sur of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs at 7:49 p.m. on Thursday informed the organizers that the event had to be postponed until sometime after Jan. 24.

Neither she nor Michele Fedoroff, the deputy head of the section, who had conveyed the same message in a telephone call, responded to messages seeking explanation.

In an interview, Ms. Mai said: “I feel disappointed. I was not going to say anything bad about Pakistan. I was just going to talk about my work and what people are doing.”