A controversy over religious conversions that has captivated Pakistanis was resolved in dramatic fashion on Wednesday when a judge ruled that three Hindu women who converted to Islam under disputed circumstances had chosen to go with their new Muslim husbands, causing consternation among the families they left behind.
The Supreme Court had intervened in the three cases in recent weeks, sequestering the women from their parents and their new husbands to consider their future without pressure. The court ruled on Wednesday that all three had freely chosen to remain Muslim.
The decision met with heavy criticism from Hindu leaders and some rights activists, who maintained that the women were forcibly converted and that their cases would make Pakistan?s already embattled minorities even more insecure.
The women have been the subject of intense media scrutiny and community pressure.
The most prominent case involved Rinkel Kumari, 19, a Hindu student who became Faryal Shah in order to marry Naveed Shah, a Muslim neighbor. In a hearing before the court on March 26, she and another woman ? Lata Kumari, 29 ? were given three weeks to make up their minds. Both women were then kept in a shelter in Karachi, the southern port city and provincial capital of Sindh.
During a packed hearing in the marble courtroom on Wednesday, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ruled that both women were adults and had had ample time to decide.
?You can go wherever you choose,? Chief Justice Chaudhry said as both women, who wore black niqabs, stood quietly alongside two female police officers.
?You will get police protection. No one will be allowed to harm you.?
Police officers also brought a third woman to the hearing, Aasha Kumari, who insisted on being identified by her Islamic name, Haleema Bibi.
Chief Justice Chaudhry then directed the police officers to take the women to the court registrar?s office to record their statements in private. Relatives were not allowed to accompany them. ?The case is disposed off,? Chief Justice Chaudhry said.
The decision was immediately criticized by the parents of the women, who complained that they had had no chance to communicate with their daughters.
?I could not talk to my daughter even for a minute ? what kind of a decision is this? ? said Nand Lal, the father of Ms. Shah. His wife, Sulachany Devi, said, ?This is not justice.?
Ms. Shah?s case began in Mirpur Mathelo, a small town in Sindh Province, on Feb. 24, when over the course of 12 hours Ms. Shah left her family home, converted to Islam and married Mr. Shah, who lived down the street.?Her family and Hindu community leaders asserted that Ms. Shah was abducted at gunpoint and forced to convert by Mian Mitho, a powerful conservative Muslim politician who sits in the national Parliament.
Mr. Shah and Mr. Mitho denied the accusation, and said she had fallen in love with Mr. Shah and then become inspired by the teachings of Islam.
On Wednesday, Mr. Shah appeared relaxed and confident before the court ruling. ?I have faith in God,? he said as he unwrapped a mint candy. He said he had spent the last three weeks at his home in Mirpur Mathelo, praying and hoping to reunite with his wife.
Hindu lawmakers attended the hearing to express solidarity with Ms. Shah?s parents. ?We were hoping to get justice ? we are not satisfied,? said one of them, Lal Chand. ?The girls should have made their statements in the open court. Why were they taken to a separate office? Everything should have been done openly.?
Mohan Das, the father of Aasha Kumari, was distraught after the hearing.??Muslims take away our children as if they are chickens!? Mr. Das shouted through tears outside the court. ?We Hindus are being forced to leave this country.?
Some rights activists expressed surprise that the women would want to remain Muslim.
?It was a complex and complicated case, as the girls initially kept changing their statements,? said Farzana Bari, a rights activist. ?But I do not know what to say if the girls have decided to go with their husbands.?
?Keeping this case aside, we all know that there is a phenomenon of forced conversions in rural Sindh,? Ms. Bari said. ?It is not a secret.?