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Pakistan seminary raid finds students held in abusive conditions

December 13, 2011 |  7:59 am

REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, AND NEW DELHI -- Police rescued approximately 50 students late Monday from an Islamic seminary in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, several of whom were reportedly chained in a basement, denied food and pressured to join the Taliban.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the students, who ranged in age from around 12 to 50, were subjected to such treatment. But police, who conducted the raid after getting tipped off by neighbors, told local media that some of the young men were drug addicts sent there by parents unaware of the horrible conditions.

Video footage showed boys and men restrained by heavy chains on their ankles. Other shots showed several celebrating after being set free.

At least two staff members at the Madrasa Zakarya seminary were arrested, although the leader of the facility in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth neighborhood reportedly escaped. Pakistan’s Interior Ministry has ordered an investigation.

Government statistics suggest there are over 15,000 madrasas, or Islamic seminaries, in Pakistan educating some 2 million students. Most parents who send their children to madrasas, some of which have a reputation for fomenting extremism, do so because they generally cost less than other schools, provide meals and have teachers who show up.

Nazish Brohi, a sociologist and women’s rights activist in Karachi, said corporal punishment and abuse occur in mainstream schools as well as madrasas, even though it’s illegal. “The problem is that all efforts at regulating madrasas have failed,” she said, adding that the government isn’t very strong on oversight over all sorts of institutions.

While there’s been some slight improvement in madrasa oversight — largely focused on trying to prevent them from sending their students to Afghanistan or Pakistani tribal areas to become fighters — it hasn’t extended to the curriculum or the quality of education students receive at the institutions, experts said.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve found students chained, although it may be the first time it’s been running live on TV,” Brohi said. “My concern, with the shock and horror of this case, is that people will focus on this one incident rather than the wider issue of oversight.”


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-- Nasir Khan in Islamabad and Mark Magnier in New Delhi

Photo: Pakistani children look through the window of a room after being rescued by police during a raid at an Islamic seminary on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan, on early Tuesday. Credit: Shakil Adil / Associated Press