In Karachi Jail: Should Jihadists Be Separated?

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AAMIR QURESHI / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani police officers take up positions in front of the Karachi Central Jail on Aug. 25, 2004

For the past nine years, Mohammad Shahid Hanif has spent most of his time reading and rereading the Koran and other Islamic literature. A tall and burly man with a white knitted prayer cap, an ankle-length white thobe and a long, shaggy black beard graying along his jawline, Hanif was the imam of a small mosque of the Deobandi sect in Karachi until 2001. That's when the Sunni extremist was convicted of having a hand in the murder of several Shi'ites, encouraging terrorism in his fiery Friday sermons and railing against then President Pervez Musharraf's close alliance with the U.S after 9/11. He denies playing a role in the murders but acknowledges that he spoke out forcefully in favor of the outlawed pro-Taliban Sunni extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba and its philosophies.

The 36-year-old madrasah (Islamic seminary) alum has 26 years of his sentence remaining, but rather than being reformed and breaking with his militant jihadist ideology, he is deepening it. "Thanks be to God, I am a mujahid [holy warrior], not the type that kills people but the type that teaches people about the Koran and divine judgments," he says in fluent Arabic. "When I leave this place, I will continue to do this."

"This place" is the Karachi Central Jail, an elegant, 111-year-old, fortress-like sandstone building that is home to some of Pakistan's most notorious prisoners. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's killer is here, along with the extremists who attacked the U.S. consulate in Karachi. The jail, the largest of the 22 in the crime-infested, religiously conservative Sindh province, has a capacity of 1,800 but is home to 3,800 men, including more than 150 extremists like Hanif.

The extremists are kept separate from other prisoners and are confined to their quarters most of the time. Unlike other prisoners, who are permitted to benefit from the literacy, computer, fine-arts, music and Koran lessons on offer at the jail, the extremists are left to themselves and their Islamic texts. "To save the other prisoners from the terrorists, we keep them in," jail superintendent Nusrat Hussain Mangat says, explaining why they have been sequestered. "They have enough conviction in what they think is the truth that they can influence others who can be easily molded."

For the past few years, Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts have centered on military offensives in the northwest tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. Little has been done to proactively tackle militancy in urban settings like Lahore and Karachi (beyond running gun battles with militants after they have staged attacks) and less still to eradicate the extremist ideology that fuels the violence. There is no Pakistani equivalent of the ambitious Saudi government program to rehabilitate militants by persuading them to disavow violent Islamist ideologies. The Kingdom's program, which is run by clerics, psychologists and social scientists, has had mixed success over the past few years, but it recognizes that force alone is not enough to turn someone with terrorist sympathies. Mangat, a law-enforcement officer for 23 years, also knows this but says it's "just too risky" to let the extremists mingle with the other prisoners. In the general population, Qazem Miraname, a white-haired Shi'ite whose trial for drug trafficking has lasted seven years and counting, shares the superintendent's view. "I fear Allah, not them, but I'm happy that they're isolated," he says.

A few months ago in Karachi Central Jail, inmates from the general population who objected to music classes on the grounds that they were un-Islamic smashed instruments and started a brawl. The music lessons were restarted three weeks ago, but the incident provides an example, Mangat says, of what might happen if extremists were permitted to mingle with others.

Sindh's minister for prisons, Muzafer Ali Shujra, already has his hands full dealing with a laundry list of other issues. "There are many problems in the jails," he says, including smuggled alcohol, heroin, marijuana, cell phones, women and young boys. At the district jail in Sindh, a random search of inmates netted 78 mobile phones, hashish, heroin and knives from 168 prisoners, the local News daily reported on Friday, July 9. The minister is building new facilities to relieve the overcrowding. He has also fired superintendents running three of Sindh's 22 jails and appointed 500 new prison guards; he is looking to appoint 500 more, while also doubling guards' pay in a bid to dissuade them from extorting money and bribes from prisoners and their families.

Amna Warsi, a high-court lawyer and fellow at the Lahore-based Research Society of International Law who studies terrorism, says keeping extremists locked up without any opportunity to better themselves doesn't help, especially given that the vast majority of terrorism suspects are later freed because of a lack of evidence or intimidation of witnesses. "There should be reformative schools or courses for them. They need brainwashing," she says. "You have to kill an idea with an idea, to change their mind-set."

Mangat says he would welcome an extremist rehabilitation program but notes there's a lack of qualified people with the necessary religious expertise to remold his inmates' minds. It's quite a statement to make in a religiously conservative city that boasts about 8,000 madrasahs. But Mangat doesn't mince his words: "It's very difficult to trust [the madrasah instructors]. Instead of doing good, they might do bad."

The lack of trust cuts both ways. Hanif, the jailed imam, scoffs at the idea of receiving Islamic instruction and mocks courses like the Saudi militant rehabilitation program. Even if re-education classes were offered at Karachi Central Jail, he wouldn't attend them. Rather than be taught, he says, he will continue to teach his fellow inmates. "I am an imam. Why should I listen to a government imam?" he says. "We don't have faith in them."