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


Court questions whether girls were free from outside pressure.

ISTANBUL, July 29 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani court today took over supervision of two children in a custody battle that appears to hinge on their disputed conversion from Christianity to Islam.

At a hearing in Multan, 200 miles southwest of Lahore, Judge Saghir Ahmed ordered Aneela and Saba Masih, 10 and 13 respectively, to be temporarily placed in a government-run women’s shelter.

The provincial high court judge said that he did not believe the children had been free from external pressure when testifying that they had converted to Islam. Ahmed sent the sisters to Multan’s Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, forbidding them to see their parents and Muslim caretakers until an August 4 hearing, when they will again testify.

According to a lawyer representing the Christian parents, the court’s emphasis on the genuineness of the children’s conversion is irrelevant.

“It is not a matter of embracing Islam – the parents have a right to their children under the law,” said advocate Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

But according to Rehman, the judge may have acted under pressure from fanatical Muslim clerics.

The sisters’ uncle, who also attended today’s hearing, agreed.

“Muslim clerics have threatened the judge that if he allows the girls to go with the Christians, they will kill him,” Khalid Raheel said.

Aneela and Saba Masih attended today’s hearing in the company of Amjad Ali, a Muslim who married the elder sister on June 27, the day after she disappeared. The girls’ father has accused Ali and his relatives of kidnapping the children while they were traveling from their home to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan.

Younis Masih only discovered his daughters’ location when he found that Ali and another local, Muhammed Arif Bajwa, had filed a case against him for custody of his children. Their claim was based on Aneela and Saba Masih’s alleged conversion to Islam.

Under one interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim may not have custody of a Muslim.

Bajwa was unavailable for comment when Compass attempted to contact him by telephone multiple times today.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar upheld the Islamic law rationale, awarding the alleged kidnappers custody of the girls based on their conversion to Islam. Sardar refused to accept the children’s birth certificates as proof of their age, relying solely on 13-year-old Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted and married of her own volition.

Under Pakistani law, a woman can marry without the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

Younis Masih appealed the decision with the help of lawyer Rehman, appearing today before Ahmed at the Lahore High Court’s Multan bench. During the entire hearing, Ali and nine relatives remained around the children in the courtroom, issuing them instructions, Rehman said.

“Even when the court allowed the girls to approach their parents, [Amjad Ali’s relatives] were standing around them,” said the lawyer.

According to Rehman, the 13-year-old girl angrily shoved her mother away when the judge allowed the two to approach one another.

“I do not want to talk with you, I don’t want to go with you, I don’t recognize you,” the child shouted, according to Rehman. “I am a Muslim and you are a Christian.”

The lawyer said that Aneela Masih, 10, was unable to respond to questions from the judge and appeared to be in a daze. The young child’s uncle, who also attended the hearing, said that she had been especially attached to her father.

Raheel said that the children’s parents were devastated by their daughters’ response to them at the court.

After the hearing, Younis Masih told Compass that he and his wife had begun fasting and praying for their daughters’ safe return.

“Please pray that the Lord protects their minds and brings them back to us,” he said.

Lawyer Rehman accused police of taking sides with the Christian girls’ kidnappers at today’s hearing. He said that Sub-Inspector Muhammad Aslam, charged with delivering the girls to the women’s shelter, had allowed Ali and his relatives to mingle with the sisters following the hearing. But when the children’s mother approached them, he blocked her path.

Contacted by Compass, Aslam claimed to have no knowledge of the case. Muzaffargarh SP Investigation Official Chaudry Tajeen was also unavailable when Compass contacted his office to ask why police had refused to file a kidnapping case when the Christian children first went missing.

Last week Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif called on provincial police to take measures against an increase in incidents of kidnapping for ransom. According to a July 22 article in Pakistani daily The News, Sharif ordered officials to acquire equipment to track telephone calls from kidnappers demanding ransom.

Report from Compass Direct News


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