PAKISTAN: COURT GRANTS CUSTODY OF GIRLS TO KIDNAPPERS


Christian parents lose daughters because minors converted to Islam; appeal pending.

ISTANBUL, July 18 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani couple has appealed a court decision to award custody of their two daughters, 10 and 13, to the children’s alleged kidnappers. The court based its custody decision on the girls’ conversion to Islam.

Judge Main Naeem Sardar ruled Saturday (July 12) that Saba Masih, 13, and Aneela Masih, 10, had become Muslims, invalidating their Christian parents’ right to legal guardianship.

“He said that because the parents are Christians and because the girls told the court that they adopted Islam, their relationship has ceased,” lawyer Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told Compass. Under a common interpretation of Islamic law, a Christian cannot have custody of a Muslim.

The sisters appeared in a Muzaffargarh District and Sessions court in the company of 16 Muslim men and were given five minutes to testify that their conversion was genuine, human rights activist Ashfaq Fateh said. It was the first time that Younis Masih and his wife had seen their daughters since they disappeared on June 26 while traveling to their uncle’s nearby home in Sarwar Shaheed, 150 miles southwest of Lahore.

Saba Masih told the court that she and her younger sister had been inspired by Islam and had run away to Muhammed Arif Bajwa, whom the parents say kidnapped the children near their uncle’s home. Stating her age as 17, Saba Masih said she had changed her name to Fatma Bibi, a traditional Muslim name, and married a Muslim man, Amjad Ali. Under Pakistani law a woman can marry without the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

“The judge did not give me even a minute to speak with my daughters,” Younis Masih told rights activist Ashfaq Fateh. “My girls have been with these men for the last 20 days; they have pressured them to change their minds.”

The children’s parents were neither allowed to testify nor submit birth certificates and school records as evidence of the girls’ true ages.

“Will she herself determine what her age is?” said lawyer Rehman, who appealed the case to the Lahore High Court’s branch in Multan city.

Justice Saghir Ahmed today summoned the two children and Saba Masih’s new husband Ali to an initial appeal hearing set for July 29. Rehman said he believed the court would only take into consideration the fact that the girls are minors and therefore legally belong with their mother.

After his two daughters disappeared last month, Younis Masih was summoned to the local police station on June 28. Muhammad Arif Bajwa and Ali had registered a case with police for custody of Masih’s daughters based on their conversion to Islam.

Station House Officer Imtiaz Chagwani refused the father’s request to register a kidnapping case.

Muzaffargarh SP Investigation official Chaudry Tajeen said he was unable to comment on why Chagwani refused to file the complaint when Compass contacted him yesterday. He confirmed that Chagwani has since been replaced by Munawar Gulzar at the Sarwar Shaheed police station, but was unavailable when Compass called back for further details.

Younis Masih fears that his daughters’ new guardians have sexually abused them and claims that the men run a prostitution ring. Lawyer Rehman said that though there is no hard evidence to prove these claims, the father’s fears are legitimate.

“Contracting marriage with a minor girl could mean that they want to have control of her with the intention of child prostitution or something else…” the lawyer said.

According to the HRCP’s most recent annual report on human rights in Pakistan, “crime against children, especially kidnapping,” remains a serious problem. In Muzaffargarh district, where Aneela and Saba Masih lived, 24 children were freed in March 2007 from a “mini-jail” at an Islamic seminary, where they had been tortured and sodomized, the HRCP reported.

According to Rehman, religious minorities are an easy target for kidnappers both because they are typically underprivileged and because of religious bias against them.

“Local police and judges have their subconscious mindset that if you help Muslims [in such cases], it’s a very noble cause and a very religious cause,” the lawyer said.

Christians make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s 168 million citizens.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: GIRLS KIDNAPPED, ALLEGEDLY FORCED TO CONVERT


Condition and whereabouts of two sisters, 12 and 10, unknown.

ISTANBUL, July 11 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian father in Pakistan is in a legal battle with kidnappers for the custody of his pre-teen daughters, who allegedly have been forced to convert to Islam.

Yesterday a judge in Pakistan’s Punjab province ordered further investigation into the kidnapping of Saba Younis, 12, and Aneela Younis, 10, who went missing on June 26 in the small town of Chowk Munda. The kidnappers filed for custody of the girls at the local police house on June 28, stating that the sisters had converted to Islam and their father no longer had jurisdiction over them.

When the father of the two girls, Younis Masih, was summoned to the police house to testify, police initially refused to file a case against the kidnappers – Muhammed Arif, Abjad Ali, taxi driver Muhammed Asraf and an unidentified fourth man – who are known to belong to a powerful human trafficking ring. Instead, human rights activists told Compass, Masih was told to “remain silent,” as the officers said the girls had embraced Islam in a written statement.

It was not until yesterday that, with the help of advocates and the Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Ministry, Masih filed an official complaint at the local police house.

The lawyer of the Christian family, Khalil Tahir, said that the kidnappers have likely raped and sold the two minors to a brothel. Local residents regard the men as serial kidnappers.

Many details about the condition and whereabouts of the girls remain unconfirmed, and the family has not had contact with them. Tahir said the perpetrators did not bring the kidnapped girls forward to the hearing yesterday.

“Perhaps they have been raped,” Tahir said. “We’ve had no contact with the girls.”

Tahir, a human rights activist as well as a lawyer, said that in Pakistan minors cannot be coerced into changing their faith. Also a member of the Provincial Assembly, Tahir said that if the District Police Officer (DPO) did not cooperate and file the case in his station, he would take immediate action.

“I’m trying to contact the District Police Officer about the registration of the criminal case,” said Tahir. “They have not yet registered the case. It is the duty of the DPO to register the case, but he’s failing to perform his duty, so I’m trying to contact him or else I’ll take it to the high court.”

Ashfaq Fateh, a Christian advocate who established contact with Masih this week, said that the girls’ Catholic family had not received threats for their faith. He asserted, however, that the kidnapping was a religious matter.

“Being weaker and belonging to the Christian community, the girls were kidnapped,” he said.

Saba and Aneela Younis, the youngest of eight children, were kidnapped while on their way to see their uncle.

“The kidnapping of my daughters has made me feel insecure in the country,” Masih told Fateh in a telephone conversation. “My Muslim countrymen think we [Christians] are not human beings. They think we do not have dignity.”

“This happens every day,” Tahir said of the kidnappings of Pakistani children and unjust treatment toward Christians, “because we are marginalized and downtrodden people.”

Report from Compass Direct News