January 20, 2006

U.N. Bars Pakistan Rape Victim Interview

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations, under pressure from Pakistani diplomats, barred an interview with a rape victim from Pakistan while the country’s prime minister was at U.N. headquarters, her sponsors said on Friday.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told a news conference he was unaware of the controversy and had supported the campaign waged by Mukhtaran Mai.

“I have no idea,” he said. “I have no idea how the place functions.”

Mai, a 33-year old peasant woman was gang-raped in 2002 on orders of a local council for an offense committed by her brother and forced to walk home nearly naked before a jeering crowd. She prosecuted her attackers and became a women’s rights leader.

The New York-based charity Virtue Foundation had set up several interviews with Mai at the United Nations on Friday, the main one being conducted by CNN.

“Faced with pressure from Pakistan’s mission to the United Nations, which asked them to cancel the event, it was canceled at 8 p.m. last night,” said Joseph Salim, founder and executive director of the foundation.

U.N. sources said Pakistani envoys did not want to detract attention from the prime minister’s visit. Pakistani diplomats were not immediately available for comment.

The decision was made by the U.N. department of economic and social affairs, Salim said.

Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. undersecretary-general for public information, who introduced the prime minister at the news conference, said that as a “general principle” the United Nations had to take account of the views of member state.

Questioned about the incident, Aziz said, “She has come into see me many times. I have supported her and her efforts. She has gone through an ordeal that is very painful.”

“We are now providing her all the support she needs,” Aziz told the news conference. “We think women all over the world, including in Pakistan, must get a right to speak.”

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was not always supportive of Mai. Last year, he banned her from traveling to the United States so she would not “malign Pakistan” and said getting raped had become a “money-making” concern. The government relented after international protests.