Kidnapper Wins Custody of 13-Year-Old Girl, Sources Say

High court refuses to heed evidence of forcible marriage.

Muazzam Mazhar kidnapped Roshni Shaqeel on March 13, 2024 in Basti Khaliq Pura, Pakistan, the girl’s parents say. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

Muazzam Mazhar kidnapped Roshni Shaqeel on March 13, 2024 in Basti Khaliq Pura, Pakistan, the girl’s parents say. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Christian Daily InternationalMorning Star News) – A high court in Pakistan on Monday (March 25) rejected a Christian woman’s attempt to recover her 13-year-old daughter, instead allowing the child to go with a Muslim who abducted, forcibly converted her to Islam and married her, sources said.

Shakeel Masih’s daughter, Roshni Shakeel, was taken from her home in Basti Khaliq Pura in Multan District, Punjab Province, on March 13 by a 28-year-old Muslim, Muazzam Mazhar, when Masih and his wife were out of the house for work.

Masih’s wife, Nazia Shakeel, on March 18 filed a habeas corpus petition in the Lahore High Court (LHC) for the recovery of their daughter after the family was unable to find her.

On Monday (March 25), Sital Mari police presented Roshni and Mazhar in the court of Justice Ali Zia Bajwa of the Multan Bench of the LHC.

“My wife and I were hoping that the judge would consider it a clear case of child marriage and order action against the accused, but we were utterly disappointed when he completely ignored our pleas for justice,” Masih told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News.

Masih said the judge set aside case documents without even looking at them and posed only one question to Roshni: Had she married Muazzam with her own free will?

“When Roshni said that she had done so willingly and wanted to go with Muazzam, the judge congratulated her on the marriage and said she was free to live with her husband,” Masih said. “My wife and I pleaded the judge to at least consider her age and the fact that the child was under the influence of the accused for over two weeks, and she could have been easily coerced into giving that statement. Instead of listening to us and our lawyer, the judge hushed us with a hand gesture and announced his decision.”

The impoverished Christian, a cleaner at a local restaurant, has sold household items, including mobile phones and his brother’s motorcycle, to fund efforts to recover his daughter and in a desperate quest for justice.

“All my efforts have gone in vain, because the court did not even bother to inspect her official birth document and other evidence,” Masih said. “Our lawyer argued that Roshni was visibly underage and the matter should be dealt as a child marriage, but the judge did not listen to him as well.”

Authorities did not give Masih or his wife a chance to meet with Roshni and ask her about her wellbeing, he said.

“In fact, the police and family members of the accused blocked her view during the entire time she was in the courtroom. They then took her away in front of our eyes, and there was nothing I could do to stop them,” Masih said as grief and frustration overtook his voice.

Despite the setback, Masih said he was determined to make every possible legal effort to bring his daughter home.

“Roshni is just a child, how can I let that criminal exploit her and then God forbid, sell her into slavery? I will not stop till I rescue my daughter,” he said.

His Muslim attorney, Muhammad Umar Ashraf, said he was confident that the court would notice the physical condition of Roshni and treat it as a case of child marriage without question.

“However, I too was dismayed when the judge flatly refused to admit my arguments and inspect the documents,” Ashraf told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “It looked as if he was in no mood to rule in our favor.”

The attorney said that when he pointed out the child’s age before the judge, he told him to take the matter to the family court or file an intra-court appeal against his decision.

“I’m ready to move both forums in light of a recent decision by Justice Anwar Ul Haq Pannun of the LHC Multan Bench, wherein the court has ordered the government to strictly implement the anti-child marriage laws,” he said.

In a landmark interim order issued by Justice Pannun on Feb. 28, the court ordered authorities to implement the anti-child marriage laws in letter and spirit. The court was hearing a petition filed by a Muslim woman, Ramzana Bibi, seeking the custody of a niece who had fallen victim to child marriage.

The court also established a high-level committee headed by Prosecutor General of Punjab Syed Farhad Ali Shah to ensure effective implementation of child marriage restraint laws. It also ordered chairmen of union councils to promptly annul any underage marriages, with the court mandating strict legal actions against such unions.

Pannun’s order also instructed the assistant director of local government to conduct monthly reviews of union council records at the local tehsil level, emphasizing the critical role of local government in the complex challenge.

Expressing disappointment over the court’s order, Netherlands-based rights activist Joseph Janssen said that he will support the Masih family in their struggle for justice.

“I find it very absurd that courts in Pakistan continue to endorse child marriages, especially when the girls belong to the minority communities,” Janssen said. “In such cases, the courts readily admit the girl’s statement regarding her age without even thinking that the child could have been forced to lie under pressure.”

Kidnapped girls in Pakistan are routinely pressured to make statements in favor of their abductors with threats of severe harm to their family or themselves, rights advocates say.

Janssen added that Pakistan needed to consider child marriages as a national issue.

“Increasing the minimum marriageable age to 18 years in Punjab to bring it at par with the other three provinces can also be an effective deterrent against forced conversions and forced marriages of minority girls,” he said.

Bishop Leo Roderick Paul of the Multan Diocese of the Church of Pakistan supported the idea of increasing the minimum marriageable age in Punjab Province.

“Child marriages are rampant in Punjab,” Paul said. “Several cases involving Christian girls often go unreported due to the weak family backgrounds of the victims. I believe that raising the minimum age for marriage can help in bringing some safeguard against this crime.”

He also stressed the need for rigorous awareness campaigns in the Christian community to educate the members, especially minor girls.

“It is very important to build a strong spiritual foundation in our children so that they are not easily enticed by the perpetrators,” he said.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.

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