By Sarah Mac Donald - 31 July, 2020
Family of 14-year-old Christian Maira Shahbaz pin hopes on Lahore High Court to save girl from forced underage 'marriage' or prostitution.
A Christian family in Pakistan which is fighting for the return of their kidnapped 14-year-old daughter has welcomed a court ruling that the girl be placed in a women’s refuge.
Maira Shahbaz from Madina Town, near Faisalabad, was abducted at gunpoint by Mohamad Nakash during the Covid-19 lockdown. He forced her to marry him and convert to Islam.
Hearings in the abduction case have been scheduled for next week at Lahore’s High Court.
Maira will reside at the refuge, Dar ul Aman, until the High Court gives a verdict. Maira’s mother Nighat hopes the court will rule in the young girl’s favour, freeing her from her captor, and allowing her to rejoin her family in Madina.
But it has been a long battle. On 5th May 2020, Faisalabad Magistrates Court ruled in favour of her kidnapper, Mohamad Nakash, who claimed that Maira was 19 and validly wedded to him. This was despite documents produced by Maira’s family showing that she is fourteen, including her birth certificate, as well as official church and school documents.
Nakash bought 150 men to the court hearing to support him.
On 2 June 2020, Khali Tahir Sandhu, the lawyer representing Maira’s parents, submitted a petition to the High Court to appeal the Faisalabad Magistrates Court’s decision in Maira’s case.
Sandhu told ICN, “The case of Maira being a minor is very strong. There are so many gaps and weaknesses in the opponent’s argument.”
Sandhu cited a birth certificate and other official documents that prove Maira is 14. He also claimed that the marriage certificate Nakash produced in court was fake.
Nakash claims that despite the law, which prohibits marriage to minors, marrying Maira is sanctioned by Islamic custom because she has had her first period.
“In cases like this, what we so often see is that after two or three years, the people send back the girl to their family by which time they have satisfied their lust and have had enough of her,” Sandhu explained to ICN.
John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) told Premier Radio that although the law in some areas of Pakistan forbids child marriage, religious customs usually take precedence in such cases.
“The difficulty here is that [although] law is in place, the Muslim community are often minded to follow Sharia law, which indicates that it is perfectly legitimate for a man to marry an underage girl provided she has had her first period.”
“In previous cases lawyers have said that the law of the land may be one thing, but the custom is what should dictate. And they go so far as to say that these laws are only passed to show to the West that Pakistan is open for business and it’s a morally sound partner in business, and with such laws, Pakistan can set out its stall on in the European market.”
“This means that for people like Maira and their family, they’re powerless.”
Meantime, a First Instance Report (FIR) has been issued against Nakash, which, pending a ruling from Lahore High Court, could result in him being given a jail sentence. Both Nakash and two alleged accomplices are accused of abducting Maira. Nakash is also accused of presenting the court with a false marriage certificate.
The Muslim cleric quoted in the certificate has gone on record to deny involvement in the wedding and the document apparently fails to provide proof of consent from Nakash’s first wife, with whom he has two children.
But Nakash has issued an FIR against Maira’s mother, Nighat Shahbaz, and family advocate Lala Daniel, whom he accuses of harassment.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Lala Daniel said, “Developments over the past few days have been an answer to prayer and we are so grateful for everyone for their prayers in this case. But we need you to continue praying. Maira’s mother is still very sad. Her health is weak and she misses Maira very much.”
“If the police and the courts know that people in the West are paying attention they will be under more pressure to follow the law rather than give into extremist groups who are not favourable to Christians.”
He described Maira’s move from her abductor’s home to the refuge as “a miracle”, citing evidence that, had she stayed, she may have been forced to become a sex worker.
About 1,000 Christian and Hindu women and girls are abducted every year in Pakistan, according to the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, a human rights organisation in the country. Christians make up just 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population of some 200 million.
Pakistan’s Christians, like other religious minorities in the country, have been the target of escalating attacks in recent years. The attacks, on their residential areas and places of worship, have mostly been motivated by the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
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