Australian father held over 12-year-old daughter's 'marriage'

SYDNEY - The father of a 12-year-old girl was arrested in Australia on Wednesday after allegedly marrying her off to a Muslim man 14 years her senior.

Child abuse detectives charged the 61-year-old with being an accessory before the fact of having sexual intercourse with a child and procuring a child under 14 years for unlawful sexual activity.

It follows a Pakistan-born Muslim cleric being charged Tuesday with conducting the illegal marriage and the arrest last week of the "husband" - a Lebanese national - on 25 child sex offences.

The father, reportedly an Australian who converted to Islam, was refused bail in a court at Raymond Terrace, north of Sydney, while the 26-year-old Lebanese also remains in custody.

Magistrate Caled Franklin said it appeared the 61-year-old did not believe he had done anything wrong.

"Even if the allegations against him are proved he believes there is nothing wrong with the behaviour alleged," said the magistrate, according to the Newcastle Herald.

The newspaper quoted a Legal Aid solicitor as saying the man denied the allegations against him and argued that his daughter was "a very, very mature and strong-willed young woman".

"He says they are in love and it is a very strong love," the solicitor added.

While child marriages remain prevalent in parts of the world, in Australia 18 is the minimum age to tie the knot and the case has sparked debate about how widespread the problem is.

An investigation by the Sydney Daily Telegraph published Wednesday said there was an "epidemic" of child brides with hundreds of under-age teenagers living in unregistered "marriages" in New South Wales state alone.

The state's Community Services Minister Pru Goward last week said anecdotal evidence suggested forced marriages between children and adults was an ongoing issue, particularly in Sydney.

"This is a very secretive practice ... but it is not an unknown practice," she said after the current case first surfaced.

"I understand there are actually a significant number of unlawful, unregistered marriages to under-aged girls in NSW, particularly in western Sydney, southwest Sydney and the Blue Mountains."

Goward has written to her federal counterpart Michaelia Cash to ask for national awareness campaigns on under-age and forced marriage.