By Imtiaz Shah
KARACHI (Reuters) - Police in the Pakistani city of Karachi have rescued 54 students from the basement of an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, where they said they were kept in chains by clerics, beaten and barely fed.
Police raided the Zakariya madrassa late on Monday on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial hub. They were now investigating whether it had any links to violent militant groups, which often recruit from hardline religious schools.
Most victims had signs of severe torture, and had developed wounds from the chains, police said. The main cleric of the madrassa escaped during the raid.
"Those 50 boys who were kept in such an environment like animals," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told journalists.
Many of the students -- who varied in age from 15 to 45 and were kept 30 to a room -- were still in chains while shown on television.
"I was there for 30 days and I did not seen the sky or the sun even once," Zainullah Khan, 21, told Reuters at a police station where the students were questioned and then released to their relatives.
"I was whipped with a rubber belt and forced to beg for food."
Student Mohi-ud-Din said: "I was kept in the basement for the past month and was kept in chains. They also tortured me severely during this period. I was beaten with sticks."
Senior police official Rao Anwar said many of those rescued were drug addicts brought to the seminary for treatment.
"These people were not taken to the madrassa forcefully. In fact the parents of many of them had themselves got their children admitted there," he said.
"Some of them are drug addicts, and others involved in other crimes, and they were tortured and kept in chains so that they did not run away."
A man who identified himself as Abdullah told local television that he had brought his 35-year-old drug addict brother to the madrassa for rehabilitation.
"The chains are not a problem. They are needed because without them heroin addicts run away," he said.
Thousands of madrassas are spread across Pakistan, which is fighting an insurgency by al Qaeda-linked Taliban militants.
Many people are too poor to afford non-religious schools or feel state institutions are inadequate so they send their children to madrassas, where they memorize the Koran, learn Arabic and study the traditions of Islam.
Many madrassas offer free boarding and lodging. Some of the more extreme schools churn out fighters and suicide bombers for militant groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda.
One man was disappointed because his drug addict son had been rescued because the madrassa was rehabilitating him.
"I wish my son could have stayed another four months," said Abdul Hafeez.
(Additional reporting by Athar Hussain; Writing by Faisal Aziz; Editing by Michael Georgy and Ron Popeski)