Three weeks after the Lahore High Court ordered a minor Christian girl Maria Shahbaz to return to the ‘custody’ of her abductor and ‘husband’ Muhammed Naqash, the 14-year-old girl had reportedly gone into hiding with her family in Faisalabad in Pakistan.
Maria had fled with her mother and three siblings. The development came at the backdrop of a recent ruling by the Lahore High Court which overturned the verdict of the Faisalabad District and Sessions Court to put the minor girl in a women’s shelter home, Dar ul Aman.
Confirming the development, journalist Sachin Jose tweeted, “14 year old Pakistani Christian girl Maria Shahbaz has escaped from the home of her abductor, Mohamad Nakash. While in custody she refused to renounce her Catholic faith. Maria’s family has filed a police complaint against her abductor.”
14 year old Pakistani Christian girl Maria Shahbaz has escaped from the home of her abductor, Mohamad Nakash. While in custody she refused to renounce her Catholic faith. Maria’s family has filed a police complaint against her abductor. pic.twitter.com/mLgrwb5DEx— Sachin Jose (@Sachinettiyil) August 26, 2020
The case of Maria Shahbaz
She was abducted by one Mohammed Naqash on April 28, 2020. The 14-year-old girl was then drugged, raped, forcefully converted to Islam and married off to her perpetrator. Eye witness accounts by Pervez Masih, Younas Masih, and Naeem Masih state that Maria was forcibly abducted in a car while she resisted. The men were armed and therefore the eyewitnesses could not help the victim. The accused also fired shots in the air.
Reportedly, she was forced to sign blank papers which were later used by Naqash to procure fake marriage and conversion certificates. Maria was forced into silence by the abductor with threats of releasing her ‘rape video’ on social media. “They threatened to murder my whole family. My life was at stake in the hands of the accused and Nakash repeatedly raped me forcefully,” Maria had confessed.
Fake marriage certificate produced by the abductor
In the forged marriage certificate, Naqash had listed the age of the victim as 19. However, Maria’s parents had produced her birth certificate and other key documents to the Faisalabad court, proving that she is a minor. Moreover, there are other discrepancies in the marriage certificate. As per the report, the certificate named one ‘Islamic cleric’ who denied having anything to do with the said marriage.
Even though marriage to a minor child is a punishable offence under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, Naqash was granted relief by Judge Raja Muhammad Shahid Abbasi of the Lahore High Court. As a part of the modus operandi, a typed statement that she had left her home willingly was also produced.
ACN gets in touch with Maria’s lawyer
“Maria is traumatized. She cannot speak. We want to take her to the doctor, but we are afraid we might be spotted. We are all very frightened, but we place our trust in God,” Lala Robin Daniel, a family friend of Maria, was quoted as saying to ACN (Aid to the Church in Need).
The Christian organisation had also got in touch with Maria’s lawyer, Khalil Tahir Sandhu and received a copy of her statement to the police. While Sandhu had sought the arrest of Naqash for sex crime and cancellation of marriage certificate, the accused has demanded the arrest of Maria’s family for supposedly ‘kidnapping the girl’ and taking her away from him.
Human rights activists demand enforcement of law to protect religious minorities
According to human rights activist Suneel Malik, the case of Maria Shahbaz exposed the ‘wicked tactics’ employed by abductors to solicit favourable statements from the victims in Pakistani courts. “Authorities must bring these perpetrators to justice without any further delay. The government must also enact and enforce a law that protects minority women from forced conversions and forced marriages,” he was quoted as saying.
Speaking on the case of Maria Shahbaz, regional manager of ICC William Stark noted that there are ‘real’ threats to the safety and security of the victim and her family. He emphasised, “We are also deeply disappointed by the High Court’s decision to return Maira to the custody of her abductor. This has placed Maira’s safety at risk and is likely why she and her family have gone into hiding. Besides, Stark reiterated that the State of Pakistan must ‘combat’ the menacing issues of forced conversions, marriages, and kidnapping. “For too long perpetrators have used the issue of religion to justify their crimes against Pakistan’s religious minorities,” he concluded.