Pakistani police arrest cleric on suspicion of sexual abuse

·3 min read
File image of Pakistani police on patrol at a checkpoint - Sayina Bashir/Saiyna Bashir
File image of Pakistani police on patrol at a checkpoint - Sayina Bashir/Saiyna Bashir

A prominent Pakistani cleric who has led anti-blasphemy rallies has been arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing a student after a purported video of the assault provoked widespread public anger.

Aziz-ur-Rehman was held after cellphone videos apparently showing a cleric forcing himself on a student at a religious school went viral on social media.

The video prompted protest about the lack of government action to protect students at such schools, which are often linked to hugely influential hardline religious parties.

Police on Sunday promised the prosecution would be a “test case” after they seized Rehman alongside his sons, who are accused of intimidating the alleged victim.

Inam Ghani, inspector general of Punjab police said: “We want our kids protected from these child molesters and keep our society safe for our future.”

Rehman, a former leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) religious party, has worked as a custodian of Lahore's Jamia Manzoor-ul-Islamia seminary for several years. In recent months he has been seen in photos and videos of anti-blasphemy rallies held to denounce publication of cartoons in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

After video of the alleged attack emerged last week, Rehman issued a video statement denying sexual abuse and saying he was drugged before the filming of the alleged incident. He said the video was part of a plot to throw him out of the seminary.

The seminary said the cleric has been expelled from his position, and Wafaq-ul-Madaris, the body that oversees the religious schools system, said it has stripped him off his title, mufti, which means a religious scholar.

The alleged victim, said to be in his early 20s, has gone into hiding but told police the abuse had lasted for several years.

In his police complaint he said, “I was admitted into the madrassa in 2013 and had been attending it since.

“Mufti Aziz promised passing me in exams in exchange for keeping immoral relations with me.”

In a video message later shared on social media, the survivor said "my attacker's son's have threatened to kill me for exposing him."

Pakistan's leading English newspaper, Dawn, used a lead editorial to denounce inaction over the physical and sexual abuse of students and question whether the political clout of religious parties was to blame.

“There are all too many examples of madrassah students who have been sexually assaulted or beaten within an inch of their lives. The state seems to have turned a blind eye to these cases and many others like them,” the paper said.

Over 2.2 million children attend religious seminaries in Pakistan. Sexual abuse cases are often hushed up.

Previous high profile sexual assaults have also touched off widespread anger in Pakistan, but public fury has often been directed toward imposing harsher sentences or death penalties for the culprits.

There were intense calls for the death sentence in rape cases after a stranded woman motorist was gang-raped on a Lahore motorway last year. Similar anger followed a string of child abductions, rapes and murders in Kasur in Punjab province, including the killing of a six-year-old girl called Zainab.

“There has been a lot of public outrage, rightly so, on the child abuse case involving a cleric. However, this is not the first time that child abuse scandals have resulted in public anger and outrage,” said Saroop Ijaz, of Human Rights Watch.

He said: “Public anger comes in episodes and it is the authorities that need to act. The government has shown initiative on taking serious policy measures and hopefully they will be pursued further and not be distracted by populist, temporary measures only focusing on harsher punishments etc.”

He said more training and resources were needed for police, doctors and social workers to tackle abuse, as well as better oversight for religious schools.

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