A medical board constituted to determine the age of Arzoo — a Christian girl who was allegedly abducted before being forcefully converted and married to a Muslim man — informed the Sindh High Court (SHC) on Monday that the girl is between 14 to 15 years of age.
A division bench, headed by Justice K K Agha, directed that the girl be taken back to a shelter home and told police to proceed against her alleged husband for violating the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013.
During today's hearing, Arzoo reiterated she had not been kidnapped and had willingly married Syed Ali Azhar after converting to Islam.
The bench observed that according to the report presented by the medical board, the girl is between 14 to 15 years of age while the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) record showed she is 13 years old.
When the court asked Arzoo if she wished to go with her parents or to the shelter home, she insisted on going with Azhar and broke into tears.
However, the bench observed that she appeared to be underage and could not contract a marriage of her own free will. The court ordered the girl be taken back to the shelter home and adjourned the hearing for two weeks.
Activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir said that the medical report submitted to the SHC proved that Arzoo is "around 14 years of age".
"Court recognises Nadra documents stating Arzoo's age to be 13 as true. Declares prima facie she contracted child marriage," said Nasir, who is part of the legal team fighting the case on behalf of Arzoo's parents.
"The court has not disposed off this petition and the next hearing is after two weeks. The court is yet to determine whether Arzoo is sui juris to convert religion of free will given her age of 13. At this stage only question of child marriage has been addressed and resolved," he said.
Last week, the SHC had directed the provincial health secretary to constitute a special medical board to determine Arzoo's age whose alleged abduction, forced conversion and subsequent marriage had sparked an outcry from human rights groups.
According to the first information report of the case registered on his complaint, Arzoo's father Raja stated that on October 13, he and his wife went to work while their son Shahbaz had gone to school. The complainant said his three daughters, including Arzoo, were present at their home in Karachi's Railway Colony when he received a call from a relative, who told him that Arzoo was missing.
Raja said he reached home and contacted their neighbours, but could not trace his daughter. He subsequently lodged a case regarding the abduction of his daughter against unknown persons at the Frere police station.
Arzoo's family members earlier this month told Dawn that her purported husband, Azhar, lived in a house opposite theirs along with his family and was at least 45-years-old. “The rascal who abducted her has prepared fake papers to show that she is 18-years-old,” her mother said.
Police had booked Syed Ali Azhar, the girl's alleged husband, and arrested his brothers, Syed Shariq Ali, Syed Mohsin Ali, and a friend, Danish, for allegedly abducting the underage girl, purportedly forcibly converting her and marrying her to a Muslim man.
Initially, Arzoo and her supposed husband petitioned the SHC seeking a restraining order against the FIR. She submitted in the petition that she converted to Islam of her free will and also asked her family members to embrace Islam, but they refused.
She said she also contracted marriage with Azhar of her own will without duress and fear and because of which her family members had registered a kidnapping case against her spouse and in-laws.
Therefore, on Oct 27, the bench had restrained the Frere police from making any arrest in the FIR against the spouse and in-laws of Arzoo and directed the SHO of Preedy police station to provide protection to the couple.
Subsequently, a judicial magistrate had dismissed an application filed by the girl's family seeking to send her to a shelter home from the custody of her alleged husband. Her parents contended that she was 13 and was forcibly converted to Islam after being abducted.
Meanwhile, the provincial law officer filed an application in the SHC seeking placement of the girl in the care of a shelter home to ensure her safety and protection.
The bench took up the application for hearing on November 2 and had directed the police to recover the girl and shift her to shelter home. Police subsequently recovered the girl on the same day and shifted her to shelter home while Azhar was also taken into custody and on the following day a magistrate handed him over to police on three-day physical remand.
Later on Nov 5, the bench had directed the health secretary to constitute a medical board – whose findings were presented in court today – to determine Arzoo's age.