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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian authorities are investigating the marriage between an 11-year-old Thai girl and a 41-year-old Malaysian Muslim, including elements of possible "sexual grooming" in the case, the deputy prime minister said Monday.
The case has sparked public outrage and widespread calls for child brides to be banned in the predominantly Muslim country.
Rubber scrap dealer Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid was believed to have secretly married the girl — a Thai citizen who lives with her parents in Malaysia — as his third wife in Thailand, and the union became public after one of his wives lodged a complaint with police.
Muslim girls under the minimum legal marriage age of 16 can wed with the consent of the Shariah court and their parents in Malaysia. Muslim men in Malaysia can marry four wives.
Thai law sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 17, though courts may allow marriage for younger individuals if there is an appropriate reason. The reasons, however, are not defined in the law.
Although the marriage has caused outrage on social media among Thais, Thai government spokesmen said they were unaware of the case.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said there was no record of the marriage in Malaysia and no evidence yet that it had taken place. She said any such marriage would be invalid because consent hadn't been sought nor given by Malaysia's Shariah court.
"My officers are working with other local enforcement agencies to look further into this case. This includes whether there are elements of sexual grooming between the man and this girl before the supposed marriage. This is an offense" criminalized last year, Wan Azizah told a news conference.
Photos on social media showed the groom holding the girl's hand after the marriage ceremony. Malaysian media said Che Abdul Karim, who is also an imam in a rural village in northeast Kelantan state, already has two wives and six children aged 5 to 18.
He told Bernama news agency on Sunday that his marriage was lawful and had been approved by the girl's parents, who are Thai citizens who live and work in Kelantan as rubber tappers. He has said he will only formalize the marriage in Malaysia when the girl turns 16 and that she will stay with her parents until then. The girl was also quoted by local media as saying that she loves Che Abdul Karim because he is a kind man.
"The consent of a child under 12 years old is not consent" under the law, Wan Azizah said.
The deputy prime minister said an initial investigation showed that the girl, who doesn't attend school, was wooed twice, and that her mother had told the man the girl was too young and asked for the marriage to be consummated only when she turns 16. She said the man had promised to help the family financially.
The government will send in doctors to examine the girl and provide her counseling to help her cope, Wan Azizah said.
The government is "committed to ending child marriage" and is looking into raising the minimum legal age of marriage to 18, including ensuring there are strict conditions before Shariah courts can give consent for minors to wed, she added.
The U.N. children agency called the latest child marriage "shocking and unacceptable." The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia expressed concern that allowing child marriage in the name of religion might "provide cover for pedophiles and child sexual predators."
The National Human Rights Society said government data showed there were as many as 15,000 Malaysian child brides in 2010 and called for laws to criminalize child marriage to protect minors.
Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok contributed to this report.