A man married a 14-year-old girl the day after he and the child’s mother were both warned by authorities that the wedding would be illegal, a court has been told.
The would-be husband sobbed in the County Court on Wednesday as a judge was told the man thought he was “rescuing” the young bride.
The 35-year-old, who was 20 years older than the girl when they were married last year, is the first man to appear before an Australian court prosecuted with marrying a child, an offence that carries a maximum penalty of five years.
He gave the mother a $1480 gold necklace as a dowry the court was told.
The Myanmar national will be sent back into immigration detention once he has completed his sentence, but cannot be deported because he is a Rohingya refugee and effectively stateless, the court heard.
The pair were married at a mosque in Noble Park on September 29 last year when the girl was 14½. The man cannot be named so as not to identify the girl.
The day before the wedding, prosecutor Krista Breckweg told the court, a Department of Health and Human Services official warned the man and the girl’s mother that it was illegal for the girl to be married.
Police had accompanied DHHS staff on previous visits, the court heard.
Ms Breckweg said imam Ibrahim Omerdic conducted the wedding ceremony and at one point said he could not issue a marriage certificate “because of my security”.
“So when you … if you need it later when you be 18 years I give you,” Omerdic told the girl.
Omerdic was this year spared an immediate jail term after he was found guilty of solemnising an invalid marriage, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison.
Magistrate Phillip Goldberg imposed a two-month jail term but suspended it for two years. Omerdic, who was sacked as an imam after his arrest, is appealing against his conviction.
The man who married the girl was a boarder at her home, Ms Breckweg said, and paid a mahr – similar to a dowry – to the girl’s mother of a gold necklace worth $1480. The mother was at the wedding ceremony.
Defence counsel Sophie Parsons said the mother played a “central role” in the marriage, as she raised the idea of the man marrying her daughter and reassured and encouraged him.
The judge, who cannot be named so not to identify the victim, said the mother was lucky not to be charged as a co-accused.
The mother and daughter weren’t in court on Wednesday.
Ms Parsons said the man was unsure exactly how old the girl was, although he knew she was at school and under 18.
It is understood the mother told police her daughter was 17 at the time and not 14.
Ms Parsons said her client was the girl’s friend before the marriage and wanted to help her through trouble at home.
“[He] saw himself as somewhat rescuing the complainant and becoming that supporting figure in her life,” she said.
But Ms Breckweg said it was “nonsensical” for someone to marry if they didn’t know their partner’s age, and questioned why he needed to marry the girl if he wanted to help her.
“That’s not support, with respect, that’s exploitation,” she said.
The man was arrested five days after the ceremony and has spent 351 days in custody.
He was originally charged with having sex with the girl but that offence was withdrawn by prosecutors earlier this year. The court heard there was a lack of evidence to proceed with that charge.
Ms Breckweg said the man told police they would think about sex when the girl had “grown up”.
Ms Parsons said the man was remorseful and wanted to apologise to the girl and the community, and felt he had ruined his chances of having a good life.
He was also ashamed for the damage he had caused to other Rohingya living in Australia.
The hearing was adjourned for 10 minutes when the man broke down in the dock.
The man now knew it was unacceptable to marry children in Australia, Ms Parsons said.
He will be sentenced on Thursday.