Page last updated at 13:38 GMT, Wednesday, 27 August 2008 14:38 UK

How a Shia ritual ended in court

By Caroline Cheetham
BBC News

Copyright Holder: Masoud Hossaini: Men cutting on the tenth day of Muharram. Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb 2006.
Men ritually cut themselves on the 10th day of Muharram in Kabul

A Muslim has been found guilty of child cruelty after forcing two boys to beat themselves during a religious ceremony. The practice has caused controversy in Britain, but this is the first case of its kind to be brought before a UK court.

Husayn - the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad - and members of his family were slaughtered during the battle of Karbala in Iraq 1,400 years ago.

Ever since that day devout Shia Muslims have commemorated the tragedy with a month-long period of mourning called Muharram.

On the 10th day of Muharram, believers relive the tragedy through the Ashura ceremony.

Millions take part in prayers and processions, and some participate in a traditional flagellation ceremony called "zanjeer zani".

Using a long-bladed whip called a zanjeer, men beat themselves on the back until they bleed.

The ritual is not obligatory, but many believe it expresses their grief and helps them to re-enact the pain suffered by Husayn and his relatives.

Like many devout Shia Muslims brought up in Pakistan, Syed Zaidi has self-flagellated during Ashura since he was a young boy.

He told Manchester Crown Court that children as young as seven flogged themselves with the zanjeer during the ceremony in his homeland.

Children 'protected'

In this country the laws are very different from those in Pakistan. If you want children to perform this act, then take them to Pakistan
Prosecutor Andrew Nuttall

In January this year Zaidi took part in "zanjeer zani" at a centre in Levenshulme, but he then allowed two brothers aged 13 and 15 to do the same.

In the UK the law states that children under the age of 16 should be protected from harm by adults.

Prosecutor Andrew Nuttall told the jury: "In this country children under the age of 16 will be protected under the law from harm. Beyond the age of 16 it is a matter for them, but a line has to be drawn in the sand and that line is 16.

"In this country the laws are very different from those in Pakistan. If you want children to perform this act, then take them to Pakistan."

The case is the first of its kind to be brought before a British court, but it is not the first time police and prosecutors have been made aware that children are involved in "zanjeer zani" in the UK.

Cases in Bradford have been investigated and referred to Child Protection Officers, but charges were never brought.

Similar cases have also been reported in Greater Manchester, but Crown Prosecution Service lawyers decided prosecuting was not in the public interest because the children involved were willing participants.

The ceremony is very emotional and people get very involved. At that particular time of high emotion it is very difficult to say no to a child who wants to do it
Safbar Zia
Jaffria Islamic Centre
The jury in Manchester has been told that children cannot consent to self-harm.

Both boys admitted they wanted to take part in the ceremony, but Mr Nuttall said children under the age of 16 could not consent to harming themselves, and if they did they had to be protected from themselves by adults.

Shias make up about 10% of the world's Muslim population and not all worshippers take part in the all-male ritual of "zanjeer zani".

The Shia community in Manchester know the practice is controversial.

Safbar Zia, the general secretary of the Jaffria Islamic Centre in Levenshulme, said senior members of the community now tried to encourage believers to donate blood as a sign of mourning rather than beat themselves.

But he admitted many men who become very emotional during the ceremony still beat themselves and if children wanted to take part too they were not stopped.

He said: "How can you stop a child who wants to do this for his faith? We cannot discourage or stop them.

"The ceremony is very emotional and people get very involved. At that particular time of high emotion it is very difficult to say no to a child who wants to do it.

"We are trying to educate people but it will take time. We can't change things overnight."


SEE ALSO
Boys 'happy' to flog themselves
22 Aug 08 |  Manchester
Boy, 14, 'forced to flog himself'
19 Aug 08 |  Manchester
Boys 'flogged' during Shia ritual
18 Aug 08 |  Manchester

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