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


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