- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

From combined dispatches

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A group of female seminary students in the Pakistani capital yesterday freed a woman they had accused of running a brothel after forcing her to wear a burqa and repent in public.

The episode in Islamist vigilante justice coincided with a report from an international think tank that said Pakistani religious schools are training militants and supporting violent Islamist groups while government efforts to reform the seminaries are “in a shambles.”

President Pervez Musharraf announced controls on the schools in 2002, but the seminaries, known as madrasas, thrived because of the government’s dependence on religious parties, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said.

Students in black burqas seized the woman and several of her relatives from her home late Tuesday during an anti-vice campaign in the capital, taking the law into their own hands and embarrassing Gen. Musharraf’s military-dominated government.

The students are disciples of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, vice principal of the Jamia Hafsa seminary and a cleric at the adjoining Lal Masjid mosque. The mosque has a reputation for preaching hard-line Islam as well as links to an outlawed militant group accused in sectarian attacks on Shi’ite Muslims.

With no sign of police intervention to force her release, the woman, known as Aunty Shamim, was presented to reporters at the Jamia Hafsa seminary in Islamabad to meet Sheik Ghazi’s demand that she stop “spreading obscenity” in return for her freedom.

“I apologize for my past wrongdoing, and I promise in the name of God that in the future I will live like a pious person,” said the woman, with only her eyes and part of her nose visible beneath an all-enveloping burqa.

However, she said she had “threatened to become a Christian” over her treatment by the students.

“I don’t think Islam allows anyone to beat a woman and drag her through the streets like a dog,” she said, shortly before she was driven home in a car along with her daughter, daughter-in-law and 6-month-old granddaughter.

The mosque’s students are occupying Islamabad’s only children’s library in protest of plans to demolish the mosque for illegal encroachment on government land.

On Wednesday, authorities detained two of the seminary’s female teachers and two male students for warning Islamabad stores not to sell “un-Islamic” music and movies.

The detentions triggered protests by hundreds of stick-wielding students, some of whom commandeered two police vehicles, clubbed a plainclothes officer and seized two policemen. The police detainees and the two officers were released after hours of negotiations.

The actions of the seminary students in Islamabad is “evidence of growing Talibanization in the country,” the liberal News daily said in an editorial yesterday. “What’s disturbing is that this isn’t happening in some remote tribal region, but in the heart of the federal capital.”

The report by ICG was focused on the madrasas of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. It said the Karachi schools had trained and dispatched “jihadi,” or holy war, fighters to Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir.

The ICG said that because of government failure to regulate madrasas, it was impossible to know how many there were in Karachi and in the country as a whole.

The government has said there are 13,000 madrasas nationwide, but the think tank said well-founded estimates put the number at about 20,000. Despite bans and restrictions, an unknown number of foreign students were enrolled at the schools.

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