ISLAMABAD — A group of Pakistani women who were sentenced to death for purportedly mingling with men and singing at a village wedding are alive and well, the Supreme Court was told Thursday.
A local cleric sentenced four women and two men to death after mobile phone footage emerged of them enjoying themselves at a party in the mountains of Kohistan, 175 kilometres (110 miles) north of the capital Islamabad.
The men and women had allegedly danced and sung together in Gada village, in defiance of strict tribal customs that separate men and women at weddings.
From the footage itself, however, it is not clear that the men and women celebrated together. Nor are the women shown dancing, but clapping while seated.
Local officials insisted the women were safe, but Pakistan's Supreme Court took up the case after reports surfaced that the women and one of their sisters had been killed.
"I met two women and they are alive. I was told three others are also alive. They are in their homes far away in mountainous areas. I could not go there," rights activist Farzana Bari told AFP after returning from the region.
In court, attorney general Irfan Qadir said: "All the girls are alive." Justice Jawad Khawaja responded "Thank God".
Pakistan's most senior judge Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said he was ready to send in the army unless he had a clear report on all the women.
"We are even ready to provide you troops," he said. "Delay will not help the operation. Either the girls will escape or be killed."
Mohammad Afzal, a brother of one of the men in the video, has said the women were killed on May 30 on the orders of a cleric who led a 40 to 50-member tribal jirga.
The information minister for northwestern province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa again insisted on Thursday that all the women were alive.
"The girls said they are fine. They are under no threat and they have no fear," Mian Iftikhar Hussain told reporters, quoting the human rights activist Bari.
"The village elders assured us that the girls would suffer no harm," he added.
Precise details of the case have been shrouded in mystery.
Police say the scandal was rooted in tribal rivalry, saying the video was recorded three years ago and then edited in an attempt to implicate the party goers.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who on Thursday wrapped up a four-day visit to Pakistan, said while the full facts have yet to be established, the allegations show the restrictions and dangers faced by many Pakistani women.
"The very low literacy rate of women and girls especially in areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (in the northwest) is very worrying and calls for immediate actions and interventions," she told a news conference.
She said the case also illustrated the problem of parallel justice systems such as jirgas, in which key protections contained in the constitution do not apply.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says at least 943 women and girls were murdered last year after being accused of defaming their family's honour.
The statistics highlight the violence suffered by many women in conservative Muslim Pakistan, where they are frequently treated as second-class citizens.
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