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Forced marriage of girls to settle "blood debt' is halted

Four men convicted of murder agreed to marry eight young female relatives to the men of the victims' family to settle the "blood debt" _ a deal not uncommon in poor areas of central Pakistan, where traditional law still rules.

But outrage spread across the nation because so many girls, and such young ones (one is 5), were being offered to men old enough to be their great-grandfathers. That forced the families to cancel the arrangement this week.

And now, the four men again face execution.

"It is quite common in the area to marry daughters to the family of someone you wrong. But usually the ages of the girl and the man are taken into consideration," said Mohammed Asad Malik, son of a former governor of Punjab province, where their village, Musakhen, is located.

The four men, who came from the same family, were convicted and sentenced to hang for the 1988 murder of two men from another family in Musakhen, 140 miles southwest of Islamabad. Both families share the last name Khan.

Under the deal, reached Tuesday, the girls were offered in exchange for an agreement to release their male relatives. While the death sentences were handed down by a Pakistani court, the country's Islamic law stipulates the victim's family can ask for clemency.

In addition to the girls, the family of the two murdered men received the equivalent of $130,000 in "blood money," Malik said. Local officials said one girl was the daughter of one of the condemned men and the others were nieces, cousins or other relatives.

The 5-year-old was not to have been married until she was older, according to Malik and other villagers. Another of the proposed matches coupled an 18-year-old woman with an 80-year-old man.

For two of the girls, the marriages were halted just in time. A 14-year-old and a 15-year-old had already finished the wedding ceremonies and were about to be sent to the homes of their husbands-to-be, age 77 and 55, when village elders intervened.

Malik said both men already had wives, as is allowed under Islamic law. One even had children older than his prospective bride.

Not going to the husbands' homes meant the marriages could be dissolved without stigmatizing the teenagers, Malik said.

Mohammed Babar, assistant superintendent of the jail where the convicted men are held, said no execution date had been set. Other officials said the four could still be spared the gallows if the families work out another, less controversial, arrangement for settling the blood debt.

While this case drew attention because it was so extreme, experts said many similar deals involving forced marriages take place every year. They said no one knows how many, because most go unreported.

Behind these settlements, they said, is a tradition in rural areas of relying on local leaders to resolve disputes according to local customs. Government-run courts, with their greater protection of individual rights, are often avoided as cumbersome and expensive.

While not illegal, these traditional forms of mediation often end up showing little regard for the rights of women, experts say.

"Women continue to be seen as possessions of men, as something that can be just given away, like cattle or gold," said Kamila Hyat, joint director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a government rights monitor.

The low status of women was underscored in a similar case in Punjab. A tribal council in the village of Meerwala ordered the gang rape of a young woman on June 22 as a punishment after the woman's brother was seen walking unchaperoned with a girl of another tribe.

The rape shocked the nation. The four rape suspects and 11 others accused of ordering the rape or failing to stop it will stand trial.

The government has also promised to investigate the Musakhen village case for endangering the rights of women and children.

The arranged-marriage deal "appears to have been reached in violation of the law of the land and against the norms of the civilized world," Chief Justice Shaikh Riaz Ahmad said in a statement Wednesday.