The parents of a 14-year-old Pakistani Christian girl who was abducted in July and forced into an Islamic marriage are now battling the justice system in an attempt to rescue their daughter from her captors.
The U.K.-based charity Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement has been working on behalf of the family, who live in Lahore, after their 14-year-old daughter, Benish Imran, went missing on July 2.
According to a news release sent out by the charity dedicated to helping persecuted Christians in Pakistan, the girl's father, Imran Masih, registered a case under section 496-A of the Pakistani penal code at the Cantt police station on July 3.
Under Pakistani law, unlawful marriages are punishable by up to seven years in prison. However, the kidnapping and abduction of Christian and Hindu children by Muslim men remains a systemic problem.
At the time, the father didn't know who had kidnapped his daughter but was later informed by police that a marriage and conversion certificate had been registered for her. He was told that she would appear before a magistrate to record a statement on July 12.
CLAAS lawyer Nasir Anjum attended the July 12 hearing on behalf of Masih. The child also attended the hearing with a Muslim man named Waheed Ahmed. Imran testified that she was 19 years old, which isn't true. She also reportedly claimed that she embraced Islam and got married to Ahmed on her own free will.
Anjum contested the claim that she was 19, and provided a birth certificate showing the magistrate that Imran was born in October 2005. Anjum argued that a minor cannot legally be married on her own free will.
Additionally, Pakistan's penal code states that kidnapping occurs when a girl under the age of 16 is taken from a legal guardian without their consent.
The magistrate reportedly ordered CLAAS to register a case at the local police station against the marriage registrar under the Child Marriage Restraint Act. However, the magistrate did not formally write that order.
Although the girl's statement should have been tossed out by the court because she is underage, the judge recorded her statement.
According to CLAAS, authorities in the Muslim-majority country often side with Muslim perpetrators of crimes, and courts often avoid giving clear judgment because they are pressured by radical religious leaders.
According to the U.S. Library of Congress, a 2014 bill in Pakistan's National Assembly to strengthen the Child Marriage Restraint Act barring child marriage under the age of 16 by increasing punishment for perpetrators was withdrawn in 2016 after pressure from the Council of Islamic Ideology.
CLAAS-U.K. Director Nasir Saeed said in a statement that dozens of women and underage girls have been forced into Islamic marriages in the last few months.
A 2014 estimate from the nongovernmental organization Movement of Solidarity and Peace indicates that about 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are abducted, raped and forced into Islamic marriages in Pakistan every year.
“The Pakistani government must take this matter seriously and take all necessary steps to stop the ongoing forced conversion of underage Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan," Saeed said in a statement.
“Pakistan must understand that it needs to improve the situation of human rights in general and particularly in relation to religious minorities.
Saeed noted that freedom of religion has become an important issue on the global stage as of late.
While the U.K. government recently published a report on the persecution of Christians worldwide, the U.S. State Department held its second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.
"Pakistan has multiple bilateral relations with all these countries, and therefore it needs to look into this matter seriously and bring changes where necessary," Saeed stressed.
In November 2016, the provincial government in Sindh passed a law to punish perpetrators who forcibly convert religious minorities. That crime holds a punishment of up to five years in prison and three years for anyone who facilitates such a conversion.
Pakistan ranks as the fifth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2019 World Watch List.
In addition to abduction and forced conversion of Christian girls, Pakistan is often criticized for imprisoning dozens of people for the crime of blasphemy.
Under Pakistani law, it is illegal to insult Islam or its prophet. The crime is punishable by the death penalty or life imprisonment. The law is often abused by majority Muslims to take advantage of or settle scores with religious minorities.
As many as 40 people are on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan right now and Pakistan reportedly imprisons more people for blasphemy than all other countries in the world combined.
In the last two years, the U.S. State Department along with other signatory countries have signed statements criticizing blasphemy laws, such as one in Pakistan.
Pakistan is listed by the U.S. State Department as a "country of particular concern" for having engaged in or tolerated "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”