A Pakistani court has ordered the return of a Christian teenager who was abducted and forced into an Islamic marriage in March after the victim gave testimony of how she was beaten, tortured and raped, rights groups are reporting.
Shalet Masih, believed to be about 15-years-old, was rescued by a police raid at the home of her captor, Zafar Iqbal, last Wednesday morning, according to the London-based NGO British Pakistani Christian Association.
Masih was said to have been kidnapped on March 25 after leaving her family’s home in Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third most populous city.
Although she left the home following an argument with her brother, Masih reportedly headed to a family friend’s house. However, BPCA reports that Masih was eventually sold into slavery by a neighbor of the family friend to a Muslim man.
After Masih’s family and NGOs pressured police to intervene, a woman by the name of Rukhsana was arrested.
According to BPCA, Rukhsana is alleged to have confessed to police that she sold Masih to a man who she knew to be involved in sex trafficking. However, the woman could not tell police where the girl was at that time.
About a week later, the family reportedly received what is said to be a fraudulent marriage certificate in the mail signifying that their daughter had married Iqbal and also converted to Islam.
Even though the raid was conducted before dawn last Wednesday, Iqbal is believed to have fled the home before police arrived and is still on the run. After officers secured Masih, she was allowed to call home to her parents. The parents later arrived at the location to see their daughter.
Later that morning, the family appeared in the Lahore High Court. Masih shared the details of her capture and forced marriage. She claimed that she was coerced into converting to Islam, forcibly raped, beaten and tortured. She told the judge that she wanted to return to her parents.
Justice Tariq Saleem Shaikh ruled that the girl be allowed to return to the legal custody of her parents. Lawyer Chaudhry Abdul Rasheed advocated on behalf of Masih.
“I was violated and abused by my captor but he has not broken my spirit,” Masih told BPCA officer Mehwish Bhatti. “I spoke in court and will testify again and again until the monster is jailed — he should not be allowed to do this to anyone else ever again."
According to the U.K.-based NGO Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, Masih’s name was changed during the abduction from Shalet to Ayesha.
“Handing the kidnapped girl back to their parents is not enough – the perpetrators have to be brought to justice,” Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK, said in a statement. “It is important to punish all those who were involved in kidnapping, selling, and then forcibly converting her to Islam.”
Masih’s ordeal comes as countless girls and teens, especially religious minorities, have been abducted, raped or forced into Islamic marriages over the last several years.
An NGO called the Movement of Solidarity and Peace estimated in 2014 that between 100 to 700 Christian girls are abducted, raped and forced into Islamic marriages every year.
"If this case is won by Shalet it will prove once and for all that releasing captured girls from the clutches of their Muslim rapists reveals the truth of their ordeal,” BPCA Chairman Wilson Chowdhry said in a statement of the criminal case against the culprits. "It will bring to an end the awful Muslim insinuation that Christian girls willingly convert and marry men much older than them. It should be a test case that hails in new more favorable marriage laws in Pakistan that protect minority girls.”
Last month, it was reported that a 13-year-old Pakistani Christian teen was abducted by three men and forced to convert to Islam.
“What is most disturbing in many of these cases is how rape is used as a weapon to entrap victims,” International Christian Concern Regional Manager William Stark told The Christian Post in March.
“For many women in Pakistan, securing a good marriage is the only way to secure a good life. When these victimized women are raped, they feel trapped because it takes away their ability to secure a good marriage due to the shame associated with being a rape victim.”
Stark added that another tactic that abductors use to exert their power over the teen or girl is by claiming that they have custody over them because of the forced marriage.
“This makes it especially difficult for Christian women who have been abducted, forcefully converted to Islam, and forcefully married to their abductors to provide testimony against their abductors,” Stark said.
Pakistan, which is over 97 percent Muslim, ranks as the fifth-worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
Christian girls are not the only ones victimized by abduction and forced marriage. Earlier this month, two Hindu girls were kidnapped by armed men and are believed to have been forced to convert to Islam.