Boys freed from madrassa that held them prisoner in chains

Karachi police free dozens of students after tip-off leads to raid on religious seminary

Police in Karachi were confronted by the pitiful sight of dozens of men and boys – many of them in chains – confined as prisoners in a basement when they raided a religious seminary in the city. A number of them were drug addicts, sent to the madrassa by relatives in the hope they could be cured and rehabilitated.

Officers descended on the Zakariya madrassa, located on the outskirts of Pakistan's commercial capital, after receiving a tip. They said some of the 54 men and boys they discovered, some of them very young, showed signs of torture and abuse.

At least one cleric from the institution was held during the raid on Monday night, but police are looking for other members of staff.

"These people were not taken to the madrassa force- fully. In fact the parents of many of them had themselves got their children admitted there," a senior police official, Rao Anwar, told Reuters. "Some of them are drug addicts, and others involved in other crimes, and they were tortured and kept in chains so that they did not run away."

While police said they were investigating whether there was any militant link to the seminary, reports suggested its main purpose was for trying to treat addiction to heroin and other drugs. Several inmates appeared on local television to explain that they had been regularly beaten by the staff. Many of the so-called students had been shackled together. Apparently one room alone contained 30 men and boys.

"I have been here for 20 days. They hardly fed me anything and would beat me up if I did not learn my lessons properly," one young man told reporters, speaking from a nearby police station.

Another individual, identified simply as Abdullah, said he had taken his 35-year-old brother – a drug addict – to the madrassa for rehabilitation.

"The chains are not a problem. They are needed because without them heroin addicts run away," he said. Others complained that they had paid the equivalent of £100 for the madrassa to take their relatives and did not want to have to deal with them.

One man said: "I brought my grown-up son here because he is a drug addict and he was making my life miserable. I don't want to take him back."

There are thousands of seminaries located across Pakistan, offering a basic, Islamic education to boys whose families are too poor to send them to school. Tuition, and sometimes lodging, is given freely. While the authorities from time to time make noises about licensing and regulating the institutions, little has been done. Critics claim the seminaries do nothing to prepare the boys for the modern world and are often a source of conservative and even extreme Islamic education.

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said that the police had been ordered to investigate whether the seminary had any link to the Taliban.

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