Police ignore arrest order, but lawyers hopeful 13-year-old can be returned to parents.

ISTANBUL, February 26 (Compass Direct News) – After months of legal deadlock, lawyers in Pakistan said they have new hope they can restore to her family a 13-year-old Christian girl who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Muslim.

Saba Masih might be returned to her family, the lawyers said, if they can legally maneuver around Pakistani policemen who have stonewalled their attempts to pursue a kidnapping case against the captors. On Saturday (Feb. 21) a Pakistani judge charged the suspects with kidnapping for the first time in the seven-month legal ordeal.

“The judiciary is one thing, the police are another,” said Arfan Goshe, a lawyer who has taken on the custody case. “I will prove [the three accused men] kidnapped Saba so the judiciary will force the police to arrest them.”

On Saturday (Feb. 21), Judge Mohammed Ilyas issued a First Instance Report (FIR) at a subordinate court in the Punjabi village of Chawk Munda against Amjad Ali, Muhammad Ashraf and Muhammed Arif Bajwa on charges of kidnapping, trespassing, and threatening the Masih family.

Attorney Goshe, a Muslim, said the three kidnappers trespassed onto the property of Yunus Masih, the father of Saba, and threatened to kill his family and burn down his house in late December.

The decision to file kidnapping charges marks a major shift of momentum in the case. In previous hearings judges have nearly always sided with the kidnappers – based on either dubious evidence or threats from local Islamists – in the Muslims’ legal battle to retain custody of Saba and her 10-year-old sister Aneela. A court ruled the younger daughter could return to her family last September.

The two girls were kidnapped in June 2008 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam. The court granted them custody in July.

At nearly all the hearings, Muslim groups protested outside the courtroom against lawyers attempting to return Saba to her Christian parents. A traditional interpretation of Islamic law (sharia) does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of Muslim children.

In spite of the judge’s decision to begin procedures for kidnapping charges, Chawk Munda police have not followed through with the FIR by arresting the three Muslims. Today the judge contacted the local police station and ordered officers to register the kidnapping case against the three men, Goshe told Compass. He said he hopes police will file the FIR within the next few days.

“The police are favoring the accused party at this time,” he said. “Everybody knows [Saba] was abducted, and that the culprits are trying to threaten minorities everywhere.”

But others are less optimistic the kidnappers will be arrested. Khalid Raheel, Saba’s uncle, said he believes he may have to bribe the police. They would likely demand around 20,000 Pakistani rupees (US$250), he said.

Uncooperative police had also blocked the legal team’s efforts to register charges before Saturday’s ruling. As a result, the Christian family’s lawyers filed a private complaint to the subordinate court of Chawk Munda, sidestepping the need for a police investigation to file charges that would be necessary at a normal criminal court.

Goshe said the court is finally complying after months of deadlock because the multiple charges against the kidnappers cannot be ignored. Previous court hearings focused on Saba’s alleged conversion to Islam to mitigate the charges of her kidnapping, but the judiciary could not ignore the three suspects’ subsequent crimes of trespassing and attempting to burn down the Masihs’ house, he said.

In January, lawyer Akbar Durrani of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) filed an appeal to register kidnapping charges against Ali, the husband of Saba. Durrani had tried to register these charges in December, but Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz refused the case since it was built upon the testimony of Saba’s sister Aneela, whose status as a minor invalidated her testimony.

Instead, the judge ordered Ali to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,255) and allow her parents to visit, both required by Pakistani marriage protocol. Saba, however, relinquished her dowry, a prerogative provided by sharia. Her family suspects that she made this decision under threat.


Struggling Family

Attempts by Saba’s family to contact and visit her have been thwarted by Ali’s Muslim family members, despite a court order for visitation rights.

“We have heard nothing from Saba,” said Raheel, her uncle. “Once we tried to visit her, and [Ali’s family] ran after us and tried to shoot us. But the judges did not do anything.”

The seven months of legal battling have taken their toll on Saba’s family. Her parents have eight children but have been unable to send their sons to school due to the ongoing costs of the case, even though CLAAS has undertaken it pro bono.

The girls’ uncle has been trying to maintain the family’s quality of life as they struggle to get Saba back and their legal options dwindle.

“This year I will try my best to help them and send them to a school,” said Raheel.

Aneela continues to adjust to life back with her family, away from captivity. She is preparing to resume her schooling.


Common Crime

Kidnapping and rape victims in Pakistan are often Christians, since the influence of sharia on the country’s judicial system means they can be unofficially treated as second-class citizens.

Last month Muslims allegedly abducted and raped another 13-year-old Christian girl. CLAAS reported that two men kidnapped Ambreen Masih in the industrial city of Sheikupura, located northwest of Lahore. Her attackers threatened to her keep silent, and she was abducted a second time this month before her parents discovered the crime, according to a CLAAS report.

The family filed rape charges against the two kidnappers in Sheikupura, but policeman have not yet taken legal action, according to CLAAS.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Lawyers try to put financial pressure on husband to secure 13-year-old girl’s release.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – After a judge yesterday placed new financial and social pressure on the captors of a Pakistani girl who was kidnapped and converted to Islam, attorneys have guarded optimism they can return her to custody of her Christian parents.

Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz ordered the girl’s husband, Amjad Ali, to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,275) and allow her parents visitation rights, two actions required by typical Pakistani marriage protocol. At press time he had done neither.

The judge gave Saba Masih, 13, the opportunity to talk with her family during yesterday’s hearing, but she remained mostly silent behind her veil, offering only blunt replies.

“I don’t want to see my parents. They are Christians and I am a Muslim,” she said, according to her parents’ attorney.

Her younger sister Aneela Masih, who was also kidnapped but returned to her family three months ago, pleaded with her older sister to return home. The 10-year-old told her that Christmas was coming and she didn’t want her sister to spend it with those “who are not our people.”

Saba Masih appeared at the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court yesterday along with her Muslim husband and his family. Her parents filed a contempt petition last month against her captors for failing to follow Pakistani marriage protocol.

Islamic law (sharia), however, gives a wife the right to relinquish a dowry. Lawyers said they fear that the Muslim family will pressure Saba Masih to claim this right in order to offset growing financial pressure.

Lawyers hope that if her mother can visit her, it will convince her to leave her husband and come home to the family; her family believes he has threatened her with violence if she attempts to rejoin them.

At Monday’s hearing, Saba Masih still appeared reluctant to return to her family. Relatives said they were praying that she would change her mind and that the captors would lose their influence over her.

“The main thing is Saba must be ready herself to come back,” said her uncle, Khalid Raheel, the family spokesman. “But she isn’t ready to come back yet, and I don’t know how they are convincing her.”

On Wednesday (Dec. 17) the judge is expected to adjourn the case and issue a deed requiring Ali to pay the dowry at the convenience of the Masih family. The judge yesterday threatened Ali with prison time if he failed to carry out this order.

Akbar Durrani, attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said the attorneys might try to use Aneela Masih’s testimony of kidnapping to take the case to the Supreme Court if other options fail.


Prostitution Business

The Christian family’s lawyer said the attempt to force Ali to pay a dowry was a tactic to mount financial pressure on Saba Masih’s husband and to convince her to return home. Her family and their lawyers believe she has stayed with her Muslim husband because he and his family have issued death threats.

The Christian family’s chances of winning run against the judicial status quo for Pakistani religious minorities, but the new push comes after a Sept. 9 ruling that returned Aneela Masih to her parents, a rare legal victory for non-Muslims.

“We filed this [contempt] petition so she would come into the court, see her family and hopefully change her statement,” said Durrani of CLAAS. “We also want to put pressure on the Muslim family members because they are afraid of litigation, since they have to pay all these legal expenses.”

Aneela and Saba Masih were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa and three others kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Local residents regard the men as serial kidnappers with connections to a human trafficking ring. The girls’ first defense attorney believed they could have been raped and sold to a brothel.

Ironically, attorneys said, the kidnappers’ alleged desire to exploit Saba Masih may now be the best hope of her returning to her parents, as keeping her has become not lucrative but increasingly costly with court hearings continuing and legal fees multiplying.

“These [kidnappers] don’t have an emotional link to Saba,” Durrani told Compass by phone. “They are in the business of prostitution and only wanted to use these girls for their business.”

Prosecuting attorneys said they have a growing optimism that they can regain custody of Saba Masih, something they thought unlikely two months ago.


Long, Hard Battle

In previous hearings, a judge allowed Saba Masih to choose whether or not she would return to her family, even though Pakistan marriage law requires the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

The judge determined that her age was 17 based on her testimony and a report by a medical board pressured by Muslim groups to inflate her age. He did not accept as evidence her birth certificate and baptismal record that showed her age as 13.

Younis Masih and his wife first saw their daughters after their kidnapping at a July hearing. The girls were in the company of 16 Muslims and were said to be under pressure to claim they had converted to Islam.

After Aneela Masih returned to her family in September, she claimed that their captors threatened to kill them and their family if they did not do everything asked of them.

Previously it had been reported that she was raped while in captivity, but there was no medical evidence that she was sexually abused or manhandled, lawyers said.

Her sister appears to be suffering, Durrani said.

“The family has told us that Saba Masih is not in good condition – most of the time she cries and is not satisfied there,” Durrani said.


Recurrent Problem

Kidnapping of Christians in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million is not uncommon. Many captors believe they will not be convicted if caught due to the penal code’s influence by sharia, which grants non-Muslims second-class status in society.

Every year there are cases of Pakistani Christian children kidnapped, killed or exploited by those who believe their parents are powerless.

Last month a Muslim family in Nankan kidnapped the 7-year-old son of Pakistani Christian Binyamin Yusef, 30, over a land dispute. Two days later police found his son’s body, which showed signs of torture and rape.

Police did not register the case when Yusef initially approached them. CLAAS representatives hope to open court action against the alleged perpetrators.  

Report from Compass Direct News