On October 13, Ali Azhar, 45, kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and “married” Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl. On that same day, her parents registered a kidnapping case with local police.
Two days later, on October 15, “we were summoned to the station,” explained her father Raja Lal, “where we were shown documents which claimed that Arzoo was 18 and had willingly converted to Islam after marrying Ali Azhar.”
Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority records Arzoo as being born on July 31, 2007 and is therefore 13 years old. Sexual intercourse with girls under 16 is statutory rape and carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison in Pakistan.
Howeverm on October 27 the High Court of Sindh ruled in favour of the kidnapper/husband by relying on a Sharia stipulation that abrogates all the rules for those who convert to Islam. According to the court order,
“The petitioner [the 13-year-old] initially belonged to the Christian religion. However, after the passage of time, the petitioner understood and realized that Islam is a universal religion and she asked her parents and other family members to embrace Islam but they flatly refused.
“Subsequently she accepted the religion of Islam before the religious person of Madressah Jamia Islamia. After embracing Islam, her new name is Arzoo Faatima; per learned counsel, petitioner contracted her marriage to Azhar of her own free will and accord without duress and fear.”
On hearing this decision, Rita Masih, the girl’s mother — who was apparently banned from entering the courthouse and who, with her husband, had fallen at and “even touched the feet of police to meet their daughter” — cried for her daughter with open arms outside the courthouse: “Arzoo, come to your mama. He will kill you.” She eventually fainted on the pavement.
Earlier, when the girl saw and tried to go to her mother, her Muslim abductor/husband snatched and took her into the courtroom.
Discussing this matter, Samson Salamat, the Christian chairman of an interreligious organization, stated how he felt about the position taken by the court:
“I am distressed and disappointed with the position taken by the honorable court. A sexual act with a minor is felony even if she is willing. The court has validated a rape despite the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014 that punishes contractors of child marriage with up to three years’ imprisonment.
“Can a judge, an army officer or a Pakistani politician tolerate handing over their minor daughter to a middle-aged man? What is the future of minority girls in Pakistan? Our courts favor the powerful. We still don’t have strong calls from a joint minority platform on forced conversions.”
This is the second recent forced conversion and marriage of an underage Christian girl in Karachi.
To justify marriage to Huma Younus — a 14-year-old Christian girl who was also abducted, forced to convert to Islam, and wed to a Muslim man — on February 3, 2020, the Sindh high court in Karachi ruled that men may marry underage girls once they have their period, in direct compliance with Islamic sharia law, but against Karachi’s own laws.
“Our daughters are insecure and abused in this country,” Huma’s mother later remarked. “They are not safe anywhere. We leave them at schools or home but they are kidnapped, raped, humiliated, and forced to convert to Islam.”
Similarly, in August 2020, Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl, escaped from the home of Mohamad Nakash — her kidnapper, whom the Lahore High Court had recently ruled is her legitimate husband despite her and her family’s objections.
She fled to a police station, where she gave testimony that included how she was being “forced into prostitution” and “filmed while by being raped,” accompanied by threats that the video would be published unless she complied with the demands of her rapist/husband and friends. “They threatened to murder my whole family,” the girl said.
“My life was at stake in the hands of the accused and Nakash repeatedly raped me forcefully.” She and her family are currently in hiding.
In a separate incident of what is described as “religious hatred” in Pakistan, a Muslim man and his son beat and humiliated a Christian woman in public for arguing with him.
On October 12, Balqees Bibi, the Christian woman, called out in public to a relative — whose name is distinctly Christian — thereby angering Muhammad Abass Butt.
“Abbas was [always] full of religious hatred against my mother,” her son explained. “He often expressed his anger against Christians in the street, but everyone ignored him to avoid disputes.” On that day, “Abbas started abusing my mother saying, ‘Oh choori! Shut your mouth!’ When she argued with him, he slapped her and dragged her into the street.”
The report adds:
“Abbas was angry that Bibi, a person he considered socially lower than him due to her religious identity, had argued with him in public. As Abbas beat Bibi, he also used an extremely derogatory slur for Christians which labels them as untouchables. After the attack, Bibi and her family registered a police complaint against Abbas (FIR # 372/20). However, there police have yet to arrest Abbas or his son who reportedly joined his father in beating Bibi.”
The first Arab professional on the Ladies’ European Tour says Saudi Arabia is making “improvements” as it prepares to host its first women’s golf events.
The Saudi Ladies International starts today (November 17 2020) with a separate team event set to take place from 17 November.
Professional women’s golf has never taken place before in the kingdom, which has faced widespread criticism for its human rights record.
“To me it’s huge improvement,” said Moroccan professional Maha Haddioui.
“To be part of something so huge, a moment in history, to me it’s a new Saudi when it comes to a lot of things and to be part of that is really big.”
A prize find of $1m (£750,000) is in place for the this week’s singles tournament at Royal Greens Golf Club.
Saudi Arabia, which recently announced it will host its first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2021, has come under scrutiny in recent years for its staging of major sporting events, with human rights organisations such as Amnesty International saying the country is seeking to ‘sportswash’ its reputation, the BBC reports.
Amnesty’s head of campaigns has said sporting fixtures such as moor racing’s Formula One events offer the Saudis “a means of rebranding their severely tarnished reputation”.
The Saudi Ladies International was due to take place in March until the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement. At the time England’s Meghan MacLaren had said she would boycott the event for the ‘sportswashing’ reasons mentioned by Amnesty and others.
Until 2018 women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and, although a number of reforms have taken place in recent years, one activist who campaigned for the right for women to drive is currently refusing to eat in protest at the conditions in detention. Her family allege she has been offered freedom if she agrees to say she has not been tortured.
“No matter where you go you can look at flaws or what’s improving,” said Haddioui. “By looking at what’s improving, this is where you keep improving. To me the glass is half full; Saudi is making huge improvements.”
The 32-year-old joined the Ladies’ European Tour as a professional in 2012 and has played over 100 events in it.
She says professional sport is not yet viewed as a viable career path for women in the region but feels the staging of landmark events will offer aspiring sportswomen a vision of what they could achieve.
“It will motivate a lot of young girls to take up the game,” she added. “I think in the coming years there will be a lot more Arab female professional golfers.
“The game changed my life. I travel the world doing what I love. I wish the same for every woman in the Arab world – to pursue these opportunities.”
The Mail on Sunday journalists who broke the story 24 years ago that Panorama’s Martin Bashir falsified bank statements to help secure his Princess Diana interview are still furious at how their scoop was ignored.
“We brought in the biggest story of the year and we should be given due credit for that.”
Speaking to the Press Gazette, Nick Fielding added: “I feel very strongly about it. We did our job. We acted as good journalists. We stood up a story that has not been faulted in any respect.
“All that’s happened is everyone else has climbed on board and suddenly realised that what we got was valuable. I feel Press Gazette should have a special award.
“It was a great story and it was ignored for all sorts of reasons which we now know are because of lies and everything else. I was very proud of it as a piece of work.”
Fielding and Lewis revealed Bashir had asked a BBC graphic designer to create bank statements, which purported to show the former head of security for Diana’s brother Earl Spencer had received thousands from News International for information, just weeks before the interview was broadcast in November 1995.
Their splash described Bashir’s actions as “an extraordinary breach of BBC journalistic ethics” and, although the broadcaster confirmed the documents had been created, their significance was downplayed following an internal investigation into whether Diana was misled.
Now, however, director-general Tim Davie has apologised to Earl Spencer and pledged a “robust and independent” investigation – although graphic designer Matt Wiessler and Alan Waller, the Earl’s ex-head of security who was smeared, have not received an apology.
Fielding saw little interest in the story for a quarter of a century until he was approached by documentary makers, and he appears in the second episode of ITV’s The Diana Interview.
“I feel that that’s how things should have been all along – we should have got a very good show and Bashir should have been fired out there and then for his disgusting techniques,” he said.
Bashir has been unable to answer to the allegations in the past week as the BBC said he is seriously unwell with Covid-19 complications – although the Mail Online published photos of him collecting a takeaway on Friday.
Fielding said the Mail on Sunday’s original reporting did not include further dishonesty Earl Spencer alleges relating to Bashir, but said the fake bank statements were enough to call the journalist’s actions into question.
“I worked in Fleet Street for many years and I never saw behaviour like this,” Fielding added.
“This was quite clearly cornering a very vulnerable person and putting them under intense pressure to the point where she and her brother were unable to make a rational decision about what to do.”
His former colleague Lewis agreed, saying that if the allegations were about a tabloid journalist rather than the BBC there would have been “hell to pay”.
Both men pointed out they had shown a “pattern of behaviour” from Bashir, as their follow-up scoop one week later reported that documents were also mocked up for his Panorama investigation into England football manager Terry Venables’ business dealings.
Of the response to their scoop 24 years ago, Lewis said: “Nobody really reacted. The BBC dismissed it because they were protecting their scoop and Earl Spencer didn’t cooperate with us, probably because they didn’t want to damage the credibility of the interview because the interview meant something to them.”
He added: “We were very clear that what we had was proof that these documents were faked, that they were forgeries, and the BBC didn’t really seem to do anything about it at the time. Martin Bashir went off and had a very successful career in America and made lots of money off the fact he was now this very well-known interviewer.”
Lewis said it was “slightly disconcerting” to find himself now part of history.
“At the time we proved that there were these fake documents – the BBC admitted they were fake documents, they played down the significance,” he said.
“Earl Spencer presumably was in a position to say there was some significance to these documents, they had been shown and they had influenced his decision – it’s only now he’s saying that so that’s a question for him. But the story has not really changed.
“Now we know from very good use of the Freedom of Information Act by the documentary makers about what was going on within the BBC but it’s not particularly surprising to us because they were being very difficult and evasive when we were asking these questions 25 years ago.”
Picture: Jason Lewis
Jericho was first made famous by the Old Testament, when it describes how the Jewish leader Joshua circled around the city seven times, after which its walls collapsed.
More recently, it’s a major city in the West Bank, where mostly Arab Palestinians have had control, while Israeli forces man exits and entrances to this town in a valley well below sea level, and close to the trickle that these days is all that’s left of the River Jordan.
It’s also been the home of Saeb Erekat, often touted as a possible successor to the Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud Abbas. He died, aged 65, in an Israeli hospital this week, after being infected by Covid-19 while in Jericho. He had already undergone a lung transplant three years ago in the USA — and had suffered a heart attack.
I met Erekat several times, including in his Jericho home, and he always came across as a sincere but very frustrated person. His frustration stemmed from the pressures he felt from all sides. “People here in my city have warned me they want me dead,” he told me, “because they cannot see where these interminable talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority were going”.
In fact the talks went nowhere – or somewhere that many Palestinians did not like.
He was suspected, by many of his people, to be ‘soft’ on Israel, especially after notes from informal meetings between the negotiating teams of Palestinians and Israelis were leaked to Al Jazeera in 2011. He appeared willing to make concessions that contradicted the public stance of the PA leadership.
Yet he supported a Palestinian Authority decision to cut off talks with Israel several years ago – and to boycott the United States peace efforts too after it recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.
In recent months he firmly rejected any moves by Arab States, especially those in the Gulf, to make peace with Israel, demanding that the Palestinian Authority had a right to veto any such deal till it got a state of its own.
Using huge amounts of British government aid money, he established a strong propaganda arm, though, for the Authority. His Department for Negotiations Affairs put out a case for Palestinian statehood – based on a strongly-contested narrative of victimhood and on misleading maps.
Even in an arena where exaggeration is a speciality, Erekat excelled.
Early in 2002 Palestinian suicide bombers had killed over 100 Israelis (mostly civilians) in 35 days of carnage in various parts of the Jewish State. The Israelis decided to root out what they considered to be terrorist cells based in various cities and villages in the West Bank, where attacks were prepared with apparent impunity.
The Israeli assault on these targets centred on the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus. On April 11, Erekat told CNN’s Bill Hemmer that, “They are burying more than 300 Palestinian in Jenin refugee camp alone.” Ensconced in Jericho, Erekat then told several Western reporters by phone – including me – that at least 500 were dead in Jenin.
Six days later he tweaked the death toll further, this time to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in a flurry of internal self-contradiction: “We have 1,600 missing men in this refugee camp. Mostly women and children, husbands and wives . . . How many people were massacred: We say the number will not be less than 500,” Erekat declared to CNN and other Western news outlets.
Very soon, even usually sober newspapers like The Times and broadcasters like the BBC were openly affirming that a massacre had taken place. The Times correspondent, who was interviewed by the BBC, compared it with the ‘massacre of Sabra and Shatila’, a genuine massacre of civilians that had occurred in Lebanon in 1982. (The killers in that event were all Christian Phalangists, but Israeli forces had control of the entrances to the two Palestinian refugee camps.)
The actual death toll in Jenin was 52 Palestinians and 23 Israelis – a United Nations report stated three months later. (See below)
Erekat’s wildly exaggerated claims had been contradicted within days, from a seemingly unlikely source. Erekat’s colleague, the governor of Jenin, Mousa Abu Mousa. This reporter filmed him looking over a list of the Palestinian dead. It contained only 50 names. The United Nations secretary-general decided to withdraw efforts for an on-the-spot inspection team to go there, but criticised Israel for being obstructive.
Here, for the record, is an objective news agency account, published months later — far too late to have blunted the thrust of Erekat’s propaganda:
UN report rejects claims of Jenin massacre
Thursday 1 August 2002 16.00 BST
The Jenin incursion, which began in early April, was the heaviest fighting in Israel’s six-week campaign that began on March 29 this year. The Israeli army lost 23 soldiers in the camp and, in the weeks after the battle, the Palestinian cabinet minister, Saeb Erekat, said that 500 people had been killed.
The UN report, prepared by the secretary general, Kofi Annan, after Israel refused a fact-finding mission access to the camp, said 52 Palestinian deaths had been confirmed by April 18, and that up to half may have been civilians.
It called the Palestinian allegation “a figure that has not been substantiated in the light of evidence that has emerged”, the diplomats said.
Israel, which had repeatedly denied any massacre took place, praised the report. It had previously claimed that 22 Palestinian gunmen were killed in the fighting.
“Israel welcomes this finding, as well as the determination that the armed Palestinians deliberately took up position in a densely populated locality,” a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Jonathan Peled, said.
The violence in the camp came during an Israeli offensive in the West Bank, launched after a suicide bomb attack that killed 29 Israelis.
The brouhaha around Britain about the difficulties of assessing high school students’ exam results is an entirely unnecessary and could have been avoided – by a more proactive approach.
There was no reason not to allow the pupils to write the exams in a socially distanced way.
As for venues where they could have written exams, most of the schools were either empty or were catering to only a minority of pupils. In all schools there was also a huge amount of non-use of buildings, and public libraries were also devoid of users so they could have been accessed for exams.
Pupils writing these important entrance exams in any case had a couple of months when they did not need to go into school and could have prepared for exams by studying at home – or, for those pupils whose home environment was not conducive, special large rooms at schools could have been prepared.