The Sindh High Court (SHC) on Friday temporarily handed over a teenage girl — who was reported as kidnapped last year but later found to have purportedly eloped in Punjab — to her parents in Karachi after she told the court that she wanted to live with her family.

The girl, until today, had been residing in a shelter home, while her father, Syed Mehdi Kazmi, had reached out to the court to seek his daughter’s custody as well as orders for revocation of her alleged marriage with Zaheer Ahmed — the man who was purported to have tied the knot with her in Punjab.

Justice Iqbal Kalhoro took up the petition for hearing today. The girl, her father and Ahmed were in court.

At the outset, the court summoned the girl and asked her whether she wanted to live with her parents. She replied in the affirmative.

After recording her statement, the court ordered authorities to grant custody of the girl to her parents “temporarily”, while noting that a decision regarding her permanent custody would be taken by a trial court.

The judge also ruled that a child protection officer would visit the girl every Saturday along with a lady police officer. The police officer had to submit a report to the trial court after each meeting.

The judge also directed the girl’s parents to submit surety bonds of Rs1 million.

As the hearing continued, Justice Kalhoro said the parents now had a significant responsibility now that the girl was placed in their custody.

“What guarantee will you give to the court [that the girl will remain safe]?” the judge asked the girl’s father.

He was of the view that no one wanted to leave their parents’ house, adding that the girl was young and wished to go with her parents.

On the other hand, Ahmed’s counsel argued that the case was inadmissible as the same plea was pending before the trial court.

He insisted that the girl must be asked whether she wanted to live with her parents or not. He also sought the court’s directives to permit Ahmed to meet the girl.

However, the court did not entertain the request of the respondent’s counsel.

Following the arguments, the court disposed of the petition.

‘Many lessons to be learnt’

Meanwhile, Kazmi’s counsel, Advocate Jibran Nasir, tweeted that “the child is finally going home” after she “unequivocally” informed the court that she wanted to reside with her parents.

“There are many lessons to be learned from this case & reforms are needed to curb child marriages,” he said.

Speaking to DawnNews English, Nasir said that to ensure the welfare of the child, a lady police officer and a child protection officer would visit her weekly.

“Hopefully now the child will be back with her loved ones and her education and upbringing will resume,” he said.

He said this was the third case he had witnessed where the child wished to return to their family after being given time to think over their decision.

He said that the “abductors” usually brainwash the victim into thinking their parents are angry and will want to avenge the so-called honour that has been lost. However, once the child is able to meet their parents, they realise that it is not so, he said.

Nasir stated that there were enough cases present for the courts to form a standard operating procedure (SOP) for dealing with such matters.

“Instead of girls being allowed to leave with the accused, they should be transferred to a facility, maintained by the government or a private party, where they are provided psychiatric evaluation and allowed to meet their parents so that they can mull over their decision.”

He expressed the hope that the courts would develop SOPs for dealing with such cases.

The case

On April 16, 2022, the girl’s parents filed a first information report alleging that their daughter had been kidnapped when she left the house to dispose of some trash. The incident had provoked an outcry, especially on social media, which had prompted authorities to take notice.

After nearly 10 days, on April 26, the teenage girl was recovered from Okara. In a video statement that day, the girl had said that she wasn’t kidnapped and had married Zaheer of her “free will”.

She had also claimed that her parents were lying about her age.

Subsequently, she and Zaheer approached a Lahore district and sessions court and filed a petition against her father and cousin.

Meanwhile, the police had also filed a plea in court demanding that the girl be sent to Darul Aman. However, the magistrate rejected the request and allowed the teenager “to go wherever she wanted to”.

On the other hand, her parents were adamant that their daughter had been kidnapped and said that she had been forced to give the statement.

The teenager’s father had also approached the SHC in May with a plea against the Punjab court’s orders. Kazmi had stated in the petition that as per her educational, birth certificates and other records, The girl’s age was 13 and under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013 it was illegal to marry a minor.

He had asked the court to order a medical examination of his daughter. In the following days, Karachi police repeatedly failed to produce the teenager in court earning the judges’ ire.

On June 6, the SHC ordered a bone ossification test to determine her age. She was also sent to a shelter home for the time being after she refused to meet her parents.

Two days later, the court ruled that the teenager was at liberty to decide who she wanted to live with. During the hearing, the IO filed his report along with an age certificate issued by the office of the police surgeon which stated that as per the opinion of doctors and the Civil Hospital’s department of radiology, the bone age of the alleged abductee was between 16 and 17 years of age.

In its order, the bench said the petition had served its purpose as it was only to the extent of the whereabouts of the alleged minor/abductee.

Later, Kazmi challenged the verdict in the SC, which had, in turn, asked him to approach the relevant forums for the constitution of a medical board. Subsequently, a judicial magistrate in Karachi ordered the constitution of another board to determine the girl’s age.

On July 4, the medical board concluded that the girl was between 15 to 16 years of age. In the report, the medical board concluded that the consensus opinion was that her overall age was between 15-16 years, nearer to 15 based on physical examination and dentition.

In a dramatic turn, police on July 16 informed a sessions court in Karachi that 24 persons, including Zaheer, had been found involved in abducting her from Karachi and shifting her to Punjab, where they solemnised the illegal child marriage.

Afterwards, the girl approached a Lahore court on July 19 requesting to be sent to Darul Aman, citing “constant threats” from her parents while also underlining that she was “not on good terms” with Zaheer. The court accepted her application and she was shifted to the shelter home.

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