- - Tuesday, November 21, 2017

KEHRORE PAKKA, Pakistan — Kausar Parveen struggles through tears as she remembers the blood-soaked pants of her 9-year-old son, raped by an Islamic religious cleric. Each time she begins to speak, she stops, swallows hard, wipes her tears and begins again.

The boy fidgets with his scarf and looks over at his mother.

“Did he touch you?’ He nods. “Did he hurt you when he touched you?” “Yes,” he whispers.

“Did he rape you?” He buries his face in his scarf and nods yes.

Sexual abuse is a pervasive and long-standing problem at Pakistan’s network of Islamic schools known as madrassas, an Associated Press investigation has found. But in a culture where Muslim clerics are powerful, it is a problem seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public.

Formal prosecutions are even rarer, according to the investigation, based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, families, officials and aid groups. Police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics, victims’ families say. Cases rarely make it past the courts because Pakistan’s legal system allows the victim’s family to “forgive” the offender and accept what is often referred to as “blood money.”

A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past 10 years of sexual abuse by “maulvis,” or Islamic clerics and other religious officials, came to 359. That represents “barely the tip of the iceberg,” said Munizae Bano, executive director of Sahil, the organization that tallies news accounts.

In 2004, a Pakistani official revealed that more than 500 complaints had been filed of sexual assaults against boys in madrassas. He has since refused to talk.

Two officials familiar with the Islamic schools said sexual abuse is commonplace. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from militant groups. One compared the situation to the abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church.

“There are thousands of incidences of sexual abuse in the madrassas,” he said. “This thing is very common. I am not sure what it will take to expose the extent of it. It’s very dangerous to even try.”

Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf dismissed suggestions that sexual abuse is widespread, saying such talk is an attempt to malign the religion, seminaries and clerics. He acknowledges that abuse could occur occasionally ‘because there are criminals everywhere.’”

The Interior Ministry, which oversees madrassas, refused repeated written and telephone requests for an interview.

More than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan teach at least 2 million children, often among the country’s poorest. Students often receive food and education free of charge. Thousands of additional madrassas, like the one Ms. Parveen’s son attended, are unregistered and operate without scrutiny. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy, there is no central religious authority in Islam that governs madrassas.

When offending mullahs pay off police, they refuse to even register a case, the victims’ families say. The families involved are often poor and powerless.

“We are being pressured to compromise,” said a man from Punjab who would give his name only as Maqsood. His younger brother says he was sexually assaulted at a madrassa by an Islamic cleric who threatened to kill his family if he told. The AP is not naming the children because they are victims of sexual abuse.

Investigators have to get past a wall of religious authorities just to investigate suspected abuse cases.

“Basic responsibility, when something happens, is with the head of the madrassa,” said Mufti Mohammed Naeem, the head of the sprawling Jamia Binoria madrassa in the city of Karachi.

There are 2,000 to 3,000 unregistered madrassas, Mr. Naeem said, which makes central oversight even harder. The government has launched a nationwide effort to register madrassas.

The “keepers” of madrassas are also notoriously reluctant to accept government oversight or embrace reforms, said I.A. Rehman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which makes sexual abuse harder to prevent.

“This is one of those things, you know, which everybody knows is going on and happening, but evidence is very scarce,” he said, adding that the power of the people who run the madrassas has increased over the years.

As the religious right has grown stronger in Pakistan, clerics who were once dependent on village leaders for handouts, even food, have risen in stature. With this rise, reporting of sexual abuse in madrassas has dwindled, said human rights lawyer Saif-ul Mulk. Mr. Mulk has police protection because of death threats from militants outraged by his defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting Islam.

The top police officer in the district center of Multan, Deputy Inspector General Police Sultan Azam Temuri, denied that pressure from clerics or powerful politicians prompts police to go easy in such cases. He said cases are investigated when accusations are made. Mr. Temuri said his department is trying to tackle child abuse in general with the introduction of gender- and child-protection services.

Victims and their families can also choose to “forgive” an assailant because Pakistan’s legal system is a mix of British Common Law and Islamic Shariah law. A similar legal provision was changed last year to prevent forgiveness of “honor” killings, in which victims are thought to have brought shame on their families. Honor killings now carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison, but clerics in sexual abuse cases can still be forgiven.

Victims and their families often come under intense pressure to “forgive” the crime, or essentially settle for money. Many do, partly because they don’t believe they have the power to do anything else.

Sahil, the abuse monitoring organization, offers families legal aid to pursue such cases. Last year, Sahil found 56 cases of sexual assault involving religious clerics. Yet none of the families accepted the group’s offer of legal assistance.

The story of Ms. Parveen’s son, who said he was raped by his teacher in Kehrore Pakka, shows how difficult it is to get justice in cases of sexual abuse at madrassas.

At the courthouse in Kehrore Pakka, the former cleric waited his turn to go before a judge. A half-dozen members of the radical Sunni militant organization Sipah-e-Sahabah were there to support the teacher.

They scowled and moved closer when an AP reporter sat next to the teacher, who was shackled to a half-dozen other prisoners. The whispers grew louder and more insistent.

“It’s too dangerous here,” said one person, looking over at the militants nearby. “Leave. Leave the courthouse; they can do anything here.”

The teacher had already confessed, according to police, and the police report said he was found with the boy. Yet he swore his innocence in court.

“I am married. Why would I do this?” he said.

In the end, the mother, Ms. Parveen, “forgave” the cleric and accepted $300, according to police.

The cleric was set free.

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