The Lahore High Court has upheld a ruling granting custody of a 13-year-old Christian girl to a Muslim accused of kidnapping her, forcibly marrying her and converting her to Islam.
Setting aside her parents’ pleas that Nayab Gill was underage and hence could not legally marry or change her religion on her own, Justice Shahram Sarwar Chaudhry on Thursday rejected the girl’s official birth documents showing she was 13, said her father, Shahid Gill.
Her father said the court instead accepted her claim, considered to be made under severe threats of harm to her and her family, that she was 19 years old and married 30-year-old Saddam Hayat, a married father of four children, after converting to Islam of her own free will in Gujranwala on May 20.
“My daughter was brought to the court in police custody on July 1; over a dozen members of Hayat’s family were also accompanying them,” Gill told Kross Konnection. “When the judge asked Nayab about her age, she said she was 19 years old and reiterated her claim that she had converted to Islam and married Hayat of her free will.”
When the judge asked Nayab whether she wanted to go with her family or her husband, she replied that she wanted to go with Hayat, he said. The judge ordered police to hand her into her so-called husband’s custody and “ensure the couple’s protection,” Gill said.
“My child then left the courtroom in front of our eyes, and we could do nothing,” he said.
The attorney representing the girl’s family told the court that under the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, Nayab cannot contract marriage till she reached the age of 16, and that as a minor she cannot change her religion on her own.
“Her claim of converting to Islam and marrying Hayat could be due to coercion since she has been living with the accused and his family for over a month and a half,” the lawyer argued before the judge.
When the judge asked if she had made both decisions under duress, Nayab denied the lawyer’s assertion, Gill said.
The judge also rejected the lawyer’s citation of a 2019 Lahore High Court (LHC) ruling that children under the age of 15 lacked the mental capacity to change their religion. In that case, 14-year-old Christian domestic worker Pumy Muskaan’s Muslim employer forced her to convert to Islam, and Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh returned custody to her mother.
Rejecting the cited judgment as “irrelevant” to Nayab’s case, Chaudhry said it was different because she wasn’t married, whereas Nayab claimed she had converted and married by choice. Citing the sharia (Islamic law) principle that a girl who has had a menstrual cycle is of marriageable age, Chaudhry allowed Nayab to go with Hayat.
The high court’s decision can be appealed in the Supreme Court. The family has yet to decide how they will proceed.
‘CASE POORLY PRESENTED’
Gill said by phone from Gujranwala that the family’s lawyer was unable to argue the case professionally.
“When Nayab claimed that she was 19 years old, I nudged the advocate to demand evidence in support of her claim, but he kept quiet,” Gill said. “He also did not demand medical tests of my child to determine her exact age.”
The family’s lawyer also failed to point out the conflicting claims by Nayab in her May 21 application to a special judicial magistrate, he said; she had stated that she was an adult, “unmarried woman,” yet her alleged Islamic marriage certificate (Nikah Nama) was registered on May 20, the day she went missing.
“We made a grave mistake by trusting a nonprofessional, sub-Christian NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] and its lawyer for our daughter’s recovery,” Gill said. “There were so many gaps in the case which the lawyer should have brought to the court’s notice, but he failed to do so.”
The judge also could have sent her to a women’s shelter to have some time away from the accused’s influence and reconsider her decision, but the attorney did not make the request, Gill said.
Church of Pakistan President/Moderator Bishop Azad Marshall had engaged Pakistan’s top human rights lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, to fight Nayab’s case, but the NGO pressured her parents not to hire him, the bishop said.
The Church of Pakistan was prepared to provide Malook’s legal assistance and arranged for him to meet with Nayab’s parents, “but Gill and his wife did not show up to sign the legal documents the next day,” Marshall said.
“My staff made repeated attempts to contact Gill, but he did not show up despite giving them assurances that he would come,” Marshall told Kross Konnection. “We later came to know that an NGO had obtained the power of attorney from Gill and told him to ignore other offers for assistance.”
Marshall reiterated that unprofessional handling of such sensitive cases was damaging efforts to draw the government and superior judiciary’s attention to the plight of minority girls.
“We were hoping that Nayab’s case will draw the due attention towards this crucial issue once again, and a mechanism would be developed to stop such atrocities against the minority girls under the cover of religion,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the family preferred an NGO lawyer over a leading legal expert, but what more could have we done? We cannot force any person to accept our assistance.”
He added that donor agencies and concerned individuals interested in assisting victim families should contact churches or credible and reputed Christian organizations.
“Unless such issues are dealt with professionally, I’m afraid our children will continue to fall prey to such atrocities being carried out under the cover of religion,” he said.
Kidnapped Christian girls commonly face threats that they or their family members will be killed if they do not testify in court that they converted and married of their own free will, rights advocates say.
Intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is statutory rape in Pakistan, but in most cases a falsified conversion certificate and Islamic marriage certificate influence police to pardon kidnappers. Church leaders and rights activists said they fear that shelter homes, police and courts facilitate the forced conversions of Christian girls.
Nayab’s abduction adds to a list of growing cases of forced conversions and marriages of minority girls in Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
A court in Faisalabad on Feb. 16 returned 13-year-old Farah Shaheen to her Roman Catholic father’s custody nearly nine months after she was kidnapped by three Muslims from the family’s home, raped, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry a 45-year-old man, according to the family.