A court in Pakistan has released on bail a Muslim man who abducted, raped and forced a 13-year-old Christian girl into an Islamic “marriage,” based on his argument that the girl had attained puberty.
Ali Azhar, 44, was released on bail last month as he maintained he had not violated Pakistan’s laws against child marriage and child rape because the Christian girl, Arzoo Raja, had attained puberty, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reported on Saturday.
If found guilty of rape, Azhar would face life in prison or a death sentence.
“There are good, bad and at times even dark days for justice,” Jibran Nasir, the lawyer representing Arzoo’s parents, was quoted as saying.
Arzoo was abducted from her family's home in Sindh province’s Karachi city by Azhar, her Muslim neighbor, on Oct. 13, 2020, as Arzoo’s father told police when he filed a report of the crime. Although a kidnapping victim, Arzoo was forced to live with Azhar for nearly a month. During that time, she signed two papers saying she had converted to Islam and married Azhar.
In late October, the Sindh High Court validated the marriage by citing Sharia law, even though Pakistan’s secular law, under the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, forbids child marriage.
On Nov. 2, however, after Pakistan’s minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, said her lawyer had filed an intervention in the case, the court reversed its decision validating the illegal marriage and ordered police to arrest Azhar and take Arzoo to a government-run shelter home while they investigated the case.
The court also did not dismiss Arzoo’s father’s statutory rape charges brought against her kidnapper, the family’s attorney told Morning Star News at the time.
Arzoo said in a Nov. 9 court hearing that she did not want to return home and willingly converted to Islam and freely married Azhar.
“Arzoo is reluctant to live with her parents because of the consistent brainwashing done by the accused and certain community activists for ulterior motives,” Nasir previously told Morning Star News.
Her claims were almost certainly made under threat, ICC’s South Asia Regional Manager, Will Stark, told The Christian Post in an interview. Girls in similar cases are often tormented, threatened or tricked into signing the papers, he said.
Once kidnappers force girls to sign conversion and marriage documents, they can legally marry under Islamic law, which Pakistan recognizes as valid. Under Islamic law, a girl can be legally married immediately after her first period. Police usually ignore cases of child marriage when Islamic law becomes involved, Stark said.
To help support Raja, Christians can sign an online petition for her release, Stark added.
The U.S. State Department has designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating egregious and systemic abuses of religious freedom. Pakistan has also been ranked as the fifth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List.