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Mukhtar Mai, victim of a gang rape, sheds tears after a court's decision in Multan, Pakistan, Thursday. (AP photo)

A court in Pakistan has overturned the convictions of five men sentenced to death for allegedly ordering a woman gang-raped to punish her brother for having sex with someone from a high-ranking clan.

The rape of the woman in 2002, said to have been ordered by a village tribal council, caused outrage around the world and led Pakistan's government to promise action to end a centuries-old tradition of so-called "honour" killings and attacks.

A total of 14 men were charged in the attack and six men, including the village council chief, were later convicted and sentenced to death.

But High Court judges overturned the sentences on Thursday, citing a lack of evidence and contradictions in statements of witnesses.

They ordered that the village elder, Faiz Mastoi, and four other men be released from prison. They also reduced a sixth man's sentence to life in prison, said Ramzan Joya, a lawyer for the woman.

The woman, Mukhtar Mai, wept in the courtroom when she heard the judges' decision.

"I am in pain. I will ask my lawyer to challenge this decision," she told reporters.

Human rights groups have honoured Mai for her courage since she went public about the rape in the village of Meerwala, about 550 kilometres southwest of Islamabad.

She has denied that her brother had a relationship with a woman from a wealthier family, accusing the clan of making up the story because of a different dispute.

Tribal councils frequently impose sentences in rural areas according to ancient codes of honour. The punishments are often outside of Pakistani law.

After the rape, the men are accused of forcing the victim to walk half-naked through a crowd.

The Pakistani government has given Mai's family a cheque for $8,000 as compensation.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has also promised that a new school will be built in her name.