Pakistan’s High Court ordered on 2 November that a 13-year-old Christian girl be removed from the custody of her Muslim abductor, who had pressurised her to convert to Islam before forcing her into marriage.
The Sindh court ordered police and local agencies to place teenager Arzoo Raja in a safe shelter, away from Azhar Ali, who is in his 40s and is already married with children.
The ruling came six days after a judge at the same court ordered Arzoo to be given into Ali’s custody, ruling she converted to Islam and married him of her own free will.
The first judgement resulted in a wave of protests and led to the government’s Human Rights Minister, Shireen Mazari, taking a personal interest in the case. The minister announced on Twitter that the next hearing will be held on 5 November and added, “My lawyer has informed the court that an intervener will be filed [appointed] on my behalf.”
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, which leads Sindh’s provincial government, called for a review of the original case to “clear up any misunderstanding the honourable court may have, and do everything in their power to provide justice”.
Lawyer Jibran Nasir, who is part of the team acting on behalf of Arzoo’s parents, said the court has ordered that a medical test be carried out to determine Arzoo’s age ahead of the 5 November hearing that will address her age, whether she was forcibly converted and if her marriage is legal.
The lawyer said he was glad that the federal government and the provincial government are keen to see justice done for Arzoo. “There is a lot to learn from the injustices committed in this case, first by the accused and then by our governance system,” said Nasir. “With both governments on board [I] hope this case will become ground for renewed focus on child rights.”
Arzoo was snatched from her family home in Karachi’s Railway Colony on 13 October, shortly after her parents went to work. Her family said Ali, who lived opposite, had prepared fake papers to show she was 18.
Arzoo’s case is similar to that of Pakistani Christian Maria Shahbaz, who was aged 13 when she was abducted at gunpoint in April 2020 and forced into marriage by a Muslim man. The High Court in Lahore returned Maria to her kidnapper in August, ruling she had willingly converted to Islam and was legally married. Maria has since escaped and begun legal proceedings to overturn her forced conversion and forced marriage.
Non-Muslim girls and young women in Pakistan are frequently kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam before marrying a Muslim, but the authorities rarely intervene. It has been estimated that every year several hundred Christian girls, as well as a smaller number of Hindu girls, suffer such abuse.