Pakistan Struggles to Confront Madrasa Abuse

Associated Press Writer

The accounts are disturbing: beatings, rape and imprisonment with shackles and leg irons. Abuse accusations from hundreds of children sent to study at Islamic schools are prompting growing calls from parents and rights groups for a full-scale investigation.

But officials have moved slowly and cautiously in looking into the charges of mistreatment in Koranic schools, or madrasas -- pointing to a paradox across much of the Muslim world: It's often easier to tackle Islamic militants than to confront the cultural taboo on publicly airing alleged sex crimes and challenging influential clerics.

Still, if Islamic institutions ever face a reckoning over sexual abuse -- such as the Roman Catholic upheavals in recent years -- it could begin in Pakistan, where institutions already face unprecedented scrutiny by anti-terrorism agents.

"We are forcing people to look this problem in the eye," said Zia Ahmed Awan, whose group Madadgaar, or Helper, compiles reports of sexual abuse of children in Pakistan. "It is not anti-Muslim. It is not anti-cleric. We are looking out for the most vulnerable in society."

Last year, a Pakistani official stunned his nation by officially disclosing more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys studying in madrasas. Children's rights advocates were elated, believing that their long-standing claims had been validated. They also hoped Pakistan's actions would open related inquiries in other Muslim nations -- similar to the domino effect through parishes after the Catholic abuse scandals broke in the 1980s.

But there's been little progress since.

There have been no significant arrests or prosecutions involving alleged sex abuse in madrasas. Also, the official who made the revelations -- Amir Liaquat Hussain, deputy minister for religious affairs -- refuses to discuss the issue after reported death threats and harsh criticism from Islamic leaders. He turned down repeated interview requests by Associated Press.

Every discussion about Pakistan's madrasas eventually goes in an uncomfortable direction for authorities: the potential problems of leaning too hard on Islamic schools.

The madrasas have ties to influential religious and political groups. Madrasa funding comes from government aid, Saudi donations and zakat, the traditional Islamic practice of giving alms.

The schools also serve as a social safety net in a nation with a galloping birthrate and about a third of its population in poverty.

Poor families often count on the nation's more than 10,000 madrasas to take one or more young sons to ease financial strains at home. The boys typically receive little more than Koranic studies for an education. But the big dividend for families is the housing, clothes and meals the boys receive. The schools, which have as many as 1 million students total, operate with almost no official oversight.

"The mullahs think they are above the law," said Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a nongovernment agency. "We have to break this wall of silence."

An Interior Ministry official confirmed that police were investigating some allegations of sex abuse by madrasa instructors. He declined to give details or to be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Hanif Jalandhri, head of the Federation of Madrasas, the schools' main overseeing agency in Pakistan, acknowledged that abuses could occur, but disagreed that it was a widespread problem.

"I cannot rule out isolated incidents of sex abuse at madrasas, but I reject reports that hundreds of students are being subjected to sexual attacks at madrasas," he told AP. "It is wrong."

Pakistani rights groups are encouraging parents and children to speak out and document abuse. Dozens of allegations of abuse in madrasas are being compiled -- part of a wider campaign to draw attention to child abuse in a culture where domestic violence is common but rarely reaches the public's attention.

"The difference now is that no one can deny [abuse] is happening," said Manizeh Sano, executive director of Sahil, a group assisting child victims of sexual abuse. "The leaders of madrasas cannot turn their back on this problem anymore. That's a first step."

A madrasa teacher and two others are jailed awaiting trial in the port city of Karachi over an acid attack on a 14-year-old boy in 2002, allegedly after he refused to have sex with a cleric. The boy was blinded and badly disfigured. The suspects deny the charges.

In December, in another part of Karachi, Muhammad Askoroni's mother noticed a bite on the 10-year-old boy's neck. The child started crying and vomiting when asked what happened, said his mother, Dil Jauher. The boy says a cleric at his madrasa sodomized him after evening Koran classes, according to a complaint filed with police and the rights group Madadgaar.

Jauher claims a madrasa official and village elders offered her a bribe to keep the incident quiet. "But I want justice for my son," she told AP.

There have been no arrests in the case.

The files of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan include the affidavit of Atif Rehman, who was 11 when he was admitted to the Lahore Children's Hospital in April 2004 with head injuries and extensive bruises. He told investigators he was routinely beaten with iron rods at a madrasa in the northern city of Faisalabad and was chained when he tried to escape.

"The boy was bleeding from the mouth and nostrils," said his father, Muhammad Aashiq, according to the commission report.

A madrasa teacher, Qari Mahboob Aalam, denied torture allegations, but admitted "it is a practice to chain students," the report said.

The maximum penalty in Pakistan for sexually attacking a child is life imprisonment, according to Karma Cauchy, a senior Pakistani lawyer. But tribal justice and Islamic law dominate in some parts of the country and could bring calls for violent punishment.

"When you start talking about it, then you start to think that things can change," said Fazila Gulrez, spokeswoman for the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child. "That is what's happening here in Pakistan. People are starting to talk about it."

The problem goes beyond Pakistan, according to scattered references to alleged sex abuse and other rights violations in madrasas noted in recent international reports.

A 2003 survey by the Thailand-based group ECPAT -- or End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes -- raised concerns about madrasa teachers in Mauritania forcing students to beg on the streets and hand over the money.

In Bangladesh, rights groups have increased calls for madrasa investigations after a teacher was arrested in March and charged with raping girl students, who are allowed to attend the schools that in many other countries are male-only.

In the Middle East, few activists have demanded investigations into conditions in Islamic schools, but that could change as groups increasingly challenge traditional centers of influence.

"Pakistan is now a center of the showdown between modernizing Islam and forces resisting change," said Irfan Khawaja, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who follows Islamic affairs. "The madrasa issue is part of this. It will spread around the Islamic world."

Amnesty International and the Human Rights Council of Pakistan have noted growing allegations of sex abuse and recounted cases in Pakistan of students shackled to prevent escape.

"Leaders of religious parties resent official probing into the functioning of the madrasas and threaten retaliation if they are more closely controlled," Amnesty wrote.

The London bombings in July, meanwhile, could hasten the end to the madrasas' traditions of secrecy and autonomy in Pakistan.

At least one of the attackers visited a Pakistani madrasa. Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, has vowed to stamp out "extremism and militancy" in madrasas and has threatened to close schools that refuse to register with authorities by the end of the year.

Associated Press reporters Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Zarar Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.

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