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London doctor is held as forced marriage hostage

Race is on to release trainee GP lured to Bangladesh by family, held captive, beaten, and about to marry a stranger against her will. Nina Lakhani reports

British lawyers were this weekend working frantically to rescue a London doctor who has been beaten and held captive in Bangladesh in an attempt to force her into marriage. Dr Humayra Abedin, known as Dorothy to her friends, this weekend faces being forced to marry a complete stranger, unless efforts by lawyers to free her, using new powers, succeed.

Dr Abedin is being held hostage by her family in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, where she is thought to have been gagged, bound and violently beaten to get her to comply with her parents' wishes. The 33-year-old trainee GP is depressed, suicidal and without hope, according to an email she managed to send to a close friend last Friday. This is the first time friends have heard from Dr Abedin for more than three months.

Her parents and uncle were yesterday served with a Forced Marriage Order issued by the British High Court on Friday. Dr Abedin, who has worked as a doctor in the Britain since 2002, is among the first cases to be heard under the Forced Marriage Act which came into force on 25 November. The move came after the family ignored orders from the Bangladeshi high court to bring Dr Abedin to court.

The new legislation allows judges to issue protection orders to prevent forced marriage and help to rescue victims who have already been married off. Those convicted of forcing people into marriage can be jailed for up to two years.

Anne-Marie Hutchinson, the solicitor from Dawson Cornwell acting for Dr Abedin, said: "There are real concerns for the safety of this young woman. It is understood that she is to be married this weekend. The Forced Marriage Act offers protection to all residents of this country. It makes it clear that because she lives here it is not just a domestic matter for the Bangladesh authorities."

While the Act is not enforceable in Bangladesh, lawyers for Dr Abedin are confident it will strengthen the resolve of the authorities in Dhaka.

The only child of Mohammed Joynal Abedin, a retired businessman, and his wife, a housewife, Dr Abedin trained as a doctor in Bangladesh and then came to England in 2002 to study at Leeds University. She has since set up home in Leyton, east London, while working in hospitals across the capital. Dr Abedin is described by friends as an intelligent young woman who loves Bollywood films and Hindi music. She is only a year away from qualifying as a GP.

Her Muslim family became incensed after she developed a close friendship with a Hindu Bangladeshi man she met in London. Since May, they have made several attempts to keep her away from him and to force her into marriage. The Metropolitan Police launched an inquiry at the end of June, after she was held captive in her flat by her mother and uncle, who visited for several days. Her case has also been taken up by Interpol.

Her family duped her into returning to Bangladesh in August, by claiming her mother was seriously ill. They then hid her passport and plane ticket, and have held her captive since 5 August. She has been subjected to physical and psychological violence and denied contact with friends or lawyers. There are also unconfirmed claims that Dr Abedin has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital at the wishes of her parents, who have insinuated in court that her relationship with a Hindu man is a sign of mental illness.

Deprived of any access to a telephone or internet, Dr Abedin somehow managed to send an email to a close friend last Friday. The tone of the email conveys the desperation of her plight. She has lost all hope and says she wants to end her life.

Dr Abedin is one of hundreds of young British men and women who are thought to be forced into marriages every year. In the first nine months of this year, the Government's Forced Marriage Unit was contacted by 1,308 concerned callers fearing they or someone close to them might be forced into marriage. The unit directly helped 388 of these victims – nearly twice as many as in 2007.

The Ministry of Justice minister, Bridget Prentice, said: "I am delighted that the courts have already begun to make use of the Forced Marriage Order to prevent forced marriage. This is very significant and demonstrates quite clearly that the Act will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I expect the Act to send a clear message that forced marriage is a fundamental abuse of human rights and will not be tolerated. Forced marriage, like other forms of domestic violence, is underreported, so we do not know the full extent of the problem."

Lawyers acting for Dr Abedin's cousin are pursuing the case in Bangladesh. The high court in Dhaka has for the fourth time ordered her parents and uncle – who are in contempt of court – to bring her before the judge on 14 December. The cousin, Dr Shipra Chaudhury, is said to be under huge pressure to withdraw the petition.

The majority of British victims involve families of South Asian origin, but there are cases from a range of countries including Somalia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Another protection order has been issued for an 18-year-old girl who has been missing in Iraq for more than a year.

Ms Hutchinson said: "Dr Abedin's case shows that even bright and educated adult women can fall foul of these practices. These proceedings will not end until she is produced. If we are too late and she has been married, it [the Forced Marriage Act] will help us to bring nullity proceedings for her."