Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Acquit Syed Zaidi !

The mills of UK law sure do grind slowly. I blogged last year on the UK's Ashura processions and the associated flagellation with knives, or zanjeer. One of Eduardo Martino's photographs was of a young boy, head streaming with blood after cutting himself to show religious devotion. In January Syed Mustafa Zaidi was charged with "child cruelty" - I wonder exactly what the charge is ? - and now he's in court.

Participants at the men-only event take it in turns, in small groups, to flog themselves, while the crowd around them chant the name of Husayn, a central figure in the Shia faith whose death they are commemorating. The film played to the court also showed the 13-year-old boy, who Zaidi is accused of forcing, flogging himself with the zanjeer zani.

Prosecutors said the 15-year-old boy, who is not seen in the film but was allegedly forced to take part in the ceremony, suffered multiple lacerations to his back and shoulders, including a wound measuring up to a centimetre long. Andrew Nuttall, prosecutor, said Mr Zaidi also harmed himself in the film. "This devout man used considerable force upon himself, clearly causing injuries, and causing others present to fear for his safety to such an extent that they started to intervene and calm him down," he said.

Mr Nuttall said Mr Zaidi then went on to encourage the 15-year-old boy to flog himself and gave him "no choice" about participating in the ceremony. He said Mr Zaidi took the arm of the 13-year-old boy, took off his T-shirt so he was bare-chested and put the zanjeer zani in his hand and told him to flog himself.

The court heard how Mr Zaidi had attended a meeting at the community centre two days before the ceremony, where it was made plain that children under the age of 16 should not participate. Mr Zaidi denies forcing the boys to participate and claims they had requested to take part.

Mr Nuttall said: "The prosecution say the defendant ignored the advice given to him that this practice was not allowed for children under 16 years of age." He said Zaidi forced the boys to participate in a ceremony "clearly designed to cause self harm". Mr Nuttall added: "This was not only against their own will but in any event is not allowed by law."
I'll just say this again. While I disapprove of cutting yourself or anyone else with knives, unless there is evidence that these children were forced into what they did - which the prosecution alleges but seems to have no proof for - the law should get its fat nose out of it. There is an enormous difference between encouraging and forcing someone. The advice about under-16s was exactly that - advice - and as such is irrelevant.

(However there's one possibility - that the children were Mr Zaidi's sons - which wouldn't be reported, and in which case there is a greater chance that encouragement could have the force of an order. Nonetheless I can't see putting Dad up in court serves any useful purpose. A quiet word from an officer, with the backing of the local religious leader, should really be enough.)