PAKISTAN: CUSTODY CASE COULD GO TO SUPREME COURT


Muslim kidnappers continue to pressure girls at shelter: ‘Your parents will kill you.’

ISTANBUL, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – A custody battle in Pakistan over two Christian girls kidnapped and allegedly forced to convert to Islam remained inconclusive after a hearing today, with rights advocates for the family suspecting Muslim fundamentalists of pressuring the minors and a medical board.

Judge Malek Saeed Ejaz of the Lahore High Court’s Multan Branch set the next hearing for Sept. 9 after a two-hour proceeding. Lawyers for the Masih family said that if the girls are not returned to their parents at the next hearing they will appeal to the Pakistani Supreme Court.

Until then, Aneela and Saba Masih, 10 and 13 respectively, will remain at Multan’s Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors. The judge’s decision to extend the case was based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she is 17 and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17.

The medical board, however, may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih an adult, lawyers said.

“This is a case of conversion from Christianity to Islam, so we can say there is pressure, especially from fundamentalist groups,” said Aneeqa Maria, legal advocate for the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

Rights advocates said the girls themselves may have come under pressure while at the women’s shelter, although they were sent there with the purpose of escaping coercion by the Muslim family that captured them.

The Muslim family continues to threaten the girls at the shelter, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“They are giving them misinformation regarding their parents, saying, ‘If you return to your parents, they will kill you,’” he said.

The court has not accepted Saba Masih’s baptismal records or birth certificates as evidence of her minor status in previous hearings.

Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians. A minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

Both sides agree Aneela Masih is a minor and that therefore custody of her cannot be granted to the captor’s family. The lawyers for the defense argue, however, that custody of her should be given to her older sister and not to her Christian parents.

A strict interpretation of Islamic law does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of a Muslim child.

The prosecution says there is no proof the girls converted freely to Islam, and that they should be given back to their Christian parents. In fact, the Muslim family’s claim to custody of the girls doesn’t even meet the legal muster of Islamic jurisprudence, Rehman argued.

“There is no example in Islamic history of minor girls who converted to Islam without permission or the presence of their legal guardian,” he said. In Islamic law, “women do not have full capacity to give testimony in court. How is it possible to accept the statement they have embraced Islam?”

 

Possible Outcomes

Maria of CLAAS speculated that the court would give custody of Aneela Masih to her parents at the Sept. 9 hearing. Since both sides agree she is a minor, the prosecution will argue she doesn’t understand what has been happening and could not have freely chosen to convert.

Rehman said pursuing custody of the older sister would be more difficult.

“It will not be fruitful for us, because Saba herself has claimed she is married,” he said. “She has attained the age of puberty and is claiming to have married by her own choice. She has also claimed she is 17 years old. She will likely be given custody to her Muslim husband.”

If both girls aren’t returned to their Christian parents, then the prosecution plans to appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court.

An Aug. 6 hearing at the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan should examine Saba Masih to determine if she was old enough to marry of her own volition. In previous hearings she claimed she was 17.

A crowd of about 20 people gathered at the courthouse today and shouted threats at the Masih family and their lawyers. Among those in the crowd were Islamic scholars from Mufti groups, which have also made threatening telephone calls to CLAAS for trying to give Christian parents custody of Muslim children, Maria said.

The two sisters 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 kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, 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.

Younis Masih, the girls’ father, claimed Ali and his family kidnapped the girls while they were en route to visit their uncle. He only learned of their location after the men filed for custody and summoned Masih to the police station.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

The girls’ father has tried to gain custody of his daughters by appealing to Islamic authorities. On July 10 he obtained an edict from Chawk Munda imam Mohammad Abdul Majeed on whether his 13-year-old daughter’s marriage was valid according to Islam.

Majeed replied that a 13-year-old girl’s marriage is valid if she has attained puberty and freely chosen to convert. If Saba Masih’s conversion were coerced, then her marriage would be invalid because Islam does not allow compulsion in religion, he said.

Majeed’s ruling, however, was not accepted in previous hearings since he declined to appear in court and testify.

 

Kidnapping and Threats

Today’s hearing in Multan came during increased kidnappings of Christian minors and threats against legal activists in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim country of 168 million.

Phone threats from Islamic groups have forced Maria, lawyer for a Christian legal advocacy group and counsel for the Masih family, to go underground for the last two weeks.

CLAAS has come under scrutiny for taking up cases of the forced conversion of kidnapped girls such as the Masih sisters and that of Sonia Younis, 13. On June 24 a Muslim woman in Lahore kidnapped Younis and married her to her son, Mohammead Imran.

When Younis’ parents filed a complaint with a local police station, an investigator returned three days later with a certificate stating Younis had become a Muslim and married Imran. Younis’ parents charged Imran’s parents with kidnapping, but police dismissed it on religious grounds, according to CLAAS.

Kidnappings of non-Muslims are common in Pakistan, where the Christian population is less than 2 percent.

“Generally, because the courts are biased, they give custody to the Muslims,” Maria of CLAAS said. “In many cases the girls are minors. These kinds of cases are similar to others.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

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