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Pakistan: 2 Months After Girl Abducted in Gilgit, Community Asks Police for Answers

The 12-year-old girl’s mother and lawyers suspect she has been married by force and allege police inaction in finding her. Meanwhile, activists are vexed by how her abduction is being turned into a religious issue.
Falak. Photo: Special arrangement

Lahore: Activists and civil society members were waiting tentatively all morning on Tuesday (April 2), as a court hearing was underway. But they were only met with disappointment. The police was meant to bring to court Falak Noor, a 12-year-old girl who went missing from her village, Sultanabad, in Gilgit district after being allegedly abducted by her neighbour, 17-year-old Fareed.

But the police have come up empty handed, seeking more time. The court has now given them four more days till April 6.

All those who have been rallying for the girl to be recovered were enraged.

“It’s sheer absurdity that a minor has been in captivity for over two months now and instead of immediate recovery, we see the court has adjourned the case to a later date,” says child rights activist Irshad. “These are all delaying tactics. May sense prevail!”

It was on January 21 that Sakhi Ahmed Jan, a labourer, registered an FIR with the Danyore tehsil police that his daughter Falak Noor had been abducted by Fareed. He also named Fareed’s father Azam Khan in the FIR.

Two months later, the child is still missing. Her only sighting has been in a social media video that she posted on March 20, where she has said she is 16 years of age and has married of her own choice.

But her family says it is all being said under pressure.

Sakhi Jan. Photo: Special arrangement

“All I want is for my girl to be recovered,” says Sakhi Jan, who stood dejected outside the Gilgit-Baltistan chief court after the hearing.

“I want her back at once, taken far away from those ‘terrorists’ who abducted her. The police have been unable to recover her in the time given to them – I believe they are just not interested in solving this case.”

One of the lawyers fighting Falak Noor’s case expressed this frustration in more detail.

“In court, the police had the same old attitude, where they used delaying tactics, making excuses of submitting a ‘roznamcha’ to court – it is just colonial-age red tapeism,” said advocate Rashid Umer.

“They told the court they were making progress … But there is no progress. Two months ago they said they were ‘looking for Falak Noor’, it is the same today.”

He says it is surprising how quickly Fareed has received his transit bail, while the habeas corpus petition for Falak’s recovery is still lying there.

“The police did arrest the father, Azam Khan, but they did next to nothing while he was in custody,” says Falak Noor’s other lawyer Wazir Shafi. “They recovered nothing from him, just kept him for a few days and then eventually he got bail.”

Child marriages on the rise

“We have been demanding the recovery of Falak Noor since day one,” says Israruddin Israr, the regional coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

“When Sakhi Jan came to our office and complained to us about Noor’s abduction, we forwarded a written complaint to the Child Protection Commission. But the problem is neither the Child Protection Commission nor the Child Protection Bureau operating here in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) are serious.”

The GB Child Protection Commission operates under the GB Child Protection and Response Act, 2017, but it is neglected by the government, says Israr.

“There are meagre funds, barely any staff, and it is ill-equipped,” he says.

“It seems that the state and our government both do not care to see to the needs of our marginalised people. The reason is that the whole system here is being run by a traditional, tribal mindset. Their mentality is that such social issues happen anyway and there is not much that can be done about them. There are laws present, but little sensitisation.”

In the past, the UNICEF provided a plan to the GB government for its child protection mechanisms tobe implemented, but the plan itself has not been fully implemented.

In fact, the need for government intervention is becoming more and more important as crimes against women and girls are being increasingly reported.

On March 5, a missing person’s report was filed for Inara, an 18-year-old from Denyore village.

Twenty-two days later, her body was fished out of a river.

Inara’s parents insist that she has been murdered and possibly sexually assaulted, and have demanded investigation into the case. But once again, the police are slow to determine what happened.

Israr says that child sexual abuse seems to be on the rise in the region. The GB child protection cell is dealing with over 20 cases at present.

“These crimes are not new but they were fewer in number and rarely reported,” he says.

“Now there are more being reported. There was a child, Hasnain, who was killed and buried a few years ago and people still remember that.

“Last year, in Diamer, there was an incident of two young children being married – they were in Class 1. There were also some child sexual abuse cases reported from Baltistan and some from other places.”

A report released in November 2021 by the Population Council and the United Nations Population Fund      reveals that in the GB region, around 26.78% of girls are married off before reaching 18 years of age, and 7% are married before even reaching 15 years.

Israr had also worked on the collection of data for this report, and the project was led by sociologist Nida Kirmani.

Diamer district was reported to have the highest percentage of girls marrying early, where 47% of girls reported being married before 18 years of age, followed by Shigar (39.5%) and Ghanche (27.7%).

“This case is exactly the same as the Dua Zehra case that happened some time ago,” says Israr. “The girl kept saying how she had freely gone with the boy, but as soon as she was separated, she changed her statement about how she wanted to go back to her parents.”

On March 20, Falak Noor uploaded a video saying she has married of her own free will. There was a nikahnama or marriage contract registered in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa’s Mansehra district, hundreds of miles away from her hometown.

There was also a gynaecologist’s note saying she was ‘of age’ as her ‘primary and secondary sexual characteristics were fully developed’.

But Falak’s father says he has complete evidence that Falak is not an adult and is a few months older than 12 years of age. The National Database and Registration Authority also shows her birth date as January 1, 2012.

“There cannot be a medical examination based on the word of one gynaecologist,” says Israr.

“A medical board is the only way age can be determined, and then afterwards she must be separated from her abductors so she can speak without duress. Only then are her words believable.

“If the government does not want to immediately return her to her family, they can put her in custody with the Commission, but they must detach her from the abductors.”

A religious tinge

Most vexing for activists at this point is how the Falak Noor case is being turned into a religious issue.

“A sectarian card is being played by a lot of people; that is why activists and lawyers have gotten together to remain on the same page,” says Mamtaz Gohar, a child rights activist.

“Recently, an activist went to the UN and spoke about the abduction, but he also said a few things that many of us do not agree with – for example, he spoke of the Shia-Ismaili community as if they were not even Muslims. The girl was not ‘converted’, as he had said in his speech. How can she be converted when she is already a Muslim?”

Falak is from the Ismaili community, while the accused belongs to the Sunni Gujjar community.

The Gujjars are not a dominant majority in the area, but they are in other places, says Gohar. Still, they do not want to make it a sectarian issue.

“This is the issue of all the children of GB,” he says.

“This is just a 13-year-old girl we are talking about. If particular elements are trying to make it a different issue and change it to something else, they will only affect our future generations.”

Xari Jalil is a journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. She is also co-founder of Voicepk.net, a non-corporate/non-profit digital platform for human rights. She tweets at @xarijalil.

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