August Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

Seventeen-year-old Abid Tanoli cuts a tragic figure as he sits desolate and alone on a hospital bed in Karachi. At least 50 per cent of his body is covered in burns which have blinded both his eyes, shorn his scalp and resulted in the complete disfiguration of his face. The refusal of a visiting team of doctors from the Texas-based ‘House of Charity,’ to take him to the US for further treatment, is a another blow to the teenager. Although clearly sympathetic, the doctors are firm: “We basically provide charity services to children below 16 years of age,” they say.

Locals believe that Abid will remain permanently blind, given the lack of state-of-the-art burn treatment facilities in Pakistan. “Almost all of the soft tissues of his eyes, including the cornea and conjunctiva, have been extensively damaged,” says Dr. Hanif, an eye-specialist at the private Patel Hospital in Karachi. However, doctors say that such facilities are available in the US, UK and other western countries, and that the boy could be treated there.

Young Abid’s ordeal began when he refused to have sex with his religious teacher in a Karachi madrassa, where he had been enrolled by his parents. Abid was doused in acid as punishment for refusing to oblige him. “He threatened to ruin me for life,” Abid says, “but I didn’t take him seriously. I stopped going to the madrassa instead. I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened because I was ashamed.”

A few days later, Abid was playing with his younger siblings at home, when his school teacher, who was accompanied by three associates, broke into his house, bolted the main door and threw acid over his body. “This should be a lesson for life,” said Qari Amin, his teacher.

“I was unable to see anything,” recalls Abid. “My whole face was burning — I felt as if I was on fire.” Abid was rushed to a public hospital, where doctors told him he had been disfigured for life.

“It would have been better if they had just killed my son,” says 40-year-old Resham Jan, Abid’s mother. “We are dying every day. My son was such a good-looking person. I cannot believe he has been reduced to such a sorry state.”

According to a report compiled by Madadgaar — a joint project of LHRLA (Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid) and UNICEF — in the year 2002, some 1,615 cases of child abuse were reported in the national and vernacular press in Pakistan: “Out of 1,615 cases, 340 children were raped, 287 were sodomised and 53 children were murdered after being sexually abused,” it states. A survey carried out by the Pakistani ministry of interior affairs last year lists the existence of 15,000 religious seminaries across the country, in which two million students, the majority of whom are males, seek religious education. “Sexual abuse of children is always a major issue in segregated societies all over the world, and the hundreds and thousands of religious schools which exist in Pakistan are no exception,” believes Manzoor Baloch, a local sociologist.

Human rights activists like Zia Ahmed Awan, President of LHRLA- an organisation that provides free legal aid — says that many incidents involving sexual harassment of young children take place within religious schools across Pakistan. However, most incidents are not reported in the media due to various reasons. “They are either hushed up and sorted out within the confines of the school or, at other times, parents are pressurised not to report the incident to the media as it would give religion a bad name,” he contends.

Mohammed Abid Tanoli, Abid’s father, met with great resistance when he tried to take up his son’s case with the religious clergy. Initially asked to hush up the incident, he was even threatened with harsh consequences when he refused to back down. “I despise hypocrites who sport huge beards in the name of religion and hinder the passage of justice in the name of Islam,” Tanoli says. “I had a beard, and all my four sons were studying in the madrassa. However, following this incident, the first thing I did was to pull out all my children from the madrassa. Also, I shaved off my beard.”

But Abid and his family’s torment didn’t end there. The perpetrators of this horrendous crime pressurised the hospital administration to discharge the boy while he was still under treatment. “I cried before the doctors and told them I didn’t have enough money to take the child to a private hospital, but they didn’t listen to me and threw my ailing son out of the hospital, saying that wasn’t their concern. This was one of the tactics the religious clergy used to try and pressurise me so that I wouldn’t fight my son’s case in a court of law,” says Tanoli. Tanoli then contacted local human rights organisations and, with their assistance, managed to get his son admitted in a private hospital, where Abid is being treated free of charge.

Tanoli then reported the case at the Mominabad police station, naming Qari Amin and his three accomplices in the FIR. Police have now arrested Qari Amin and two of his associates. All of the accused are currently in prison and being tried in the lower court.

Tanoli, who was even offered 500,000 rupees as compensation if he were to withdraw the case, has been moved to an unknown location. He is determined to teach these criminals a lesson. “I don’t need the money and I’m not worried about the threats,” he says defiantly.

Back at the hospital, doctors have recently carried out skin grafts of Abid’s armpit. “His is a very complicated case, because the acid burns have damaged his eyes, skull and the upper portion of his body,” says Dr. Mazhar Nizam, a plastic surgeon. Human right activists have contacted a host of foreign charity organisations to find a financer, willing to fund Abid’s treatment abroad. “We have received responses from some of these organisations and hope to send him abroad for further treatment soon,” says Amir Murtaza, a Madadgaar activist.

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