Published On: Thu, Jun 5th, 2014

Karachi Braces for Backlash After Arrest of London ‘Godfather’


By Saeed Shah, Syed Shoaib Hasan and Alexis Flynn

Altaf Hussain’s Power in Question After Allegations of Money Laundering.

For more than two decades, Altaf Hussain has effectively run Pakistan’s largest city from London, where he lives in a luxury home in the upscale neighborhood of Mill Hill. His arrest this week by British police could lead to the unraveling of his political party and of a criminal empire that Karachi police officers say underpins his clout and wealth.

Mr. Hussain was arrested on suspicion of money laundering. He hasn’t been charged with any crime and is currently in a London hospital because of ill health, according to his party.

In Karachi, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement that Mr. Hussain founded and ran is virtually indistinguishable from the man at its helm. Giant portraits of him bedeck the Karachi neighborhoods the MQM controls.

“You can’t be in MQM and be against Altaf Hussain. He’s the one and only,” said Jehanzeb Mughal, a senior party member.

Though Mr. Hussain, 60, hasn’t set foot in Pakistan for decades, the people of Karachi are used to hearing from him. MQM is part of the government in the southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, and was an important partner in the previous federal administration.

His voice often came crackling over loudspeakers at MQM party rallies, as he delivered long speeches via a telephone link. —often rambling addresses that were also beamed live by Pakistani news channels. However, since Mr. Hussain’s Tuesday morning arrest, his voice and his leadership have been absent.

On Wednesday, Karachi was quieter than usual. Shops and businesses were closed and people avoided venturing out. Residents said they feared an outbreak of street violence.

Police in Karachi accuse the MQM of extortion, killings and land-grabbing, while political opponents claim that the party uses its muscle to steal elections, by stuffing ballots and forcing Karachi residents to vote for it. The MQM denies any organized criminality and says that it is simply the most popular party in the city of 20 million. Mr. Hussain hasn’t been charged with any crimes in Pakistan.

An activist in Karachi during his student days and a former cabdriver in Chicago, Mr. Hussain began building his political base in Pakistan in the early 1980s. by tapping into the Muslim ethnic minority with historical roots in the violence and discrimination following India’s partition. He has been living in London since 1991, gaining U.K. citizenship in 2002.

Until now, his party’s activities in Karachi didn’t cause him any problems with British law enforcement, despite loud complaints from Pakistani authorities and some British politicians.

MQM has been generally opposed to Islamists, and promoted good relations with the West and India. In September 2001, shortly after the terror attacks in the U.S., Mr. Hussain wrote a letter to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, offering his organization’s help in the fight against al Qaeda, according to the British Broadcasting Corp., which lodged a Freedom of Information Request with the government to obtain the document last year.

Critics have repeatedly complained that London turned a blind eye to MQM’s alleged unsavory activities because of its help against militant Islamists. “I take my hat off to the Metropolitan Police and denounce the British political class who remained silent and complicit with the murder, mayhem, crime and extortion organized from London by the Godfather of Karachi,” said lawmaker George Galloway after Mr. Hussain’s arrest. Mr. Galloway’s Respect Party draws much of its support from the expatriate Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

A spokeswoman from Britain’s Home Office declined to comment when asked whether Mr. Hussain had been given preferential treatment or was sheltered by authorities. “We don’t discuss individual cases,” the spokeswoman said.

Mr. Hussain found himself under the spotlight of British police following the 2010 murder of a dissident MQM leader, Imran Farooq, in London. A British police investigation into that death set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in Mr. Hussain’s arrest on the separate money-laundering allegation, Pakistani security officials said.

During raids by police on Mr. Hussain’s home and his party’s London office in late 2012 and 2013, £380,000 ($636,500) in cash was recovered, according to the MQM. The police haven’t commented on the amount.

“The MQM is a party run on donations,” said Nadeem Nusrat, the deputy leader of the MQM, who is based in London. “This money was donated to meet party expenses and to meet Mr. Hussain’s expenses.”

Mr. Hussain denies any link to the death of Mr. Farooq, whose murder he condemned. A British police spokeswoman declined to comment when asked if there was any connection between the two investigations. Mr. Hussain’s lawyer, Robert Brown, didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.

As part of the investigation into the killing of Mr. Farooq, London police late last month named two men, believed to be in Pakistan, as persons whom they are seeking.

According to Mohammed Anwar, a senior MQM member, the party enjoyed a “cordial” relationship with British law enforcement until Mr. Farooq’s killing. “Plainclothes police—they would only say they’re from Scotland Yard—used to visit on average once a month,” he said.

Like most MQM members, Mr. Hussain hails from the “mohajir” ethnic minority—Muslims who migrated from India at the time of partition in 1947 to the new country of Pakistan, and initially faced discrimination.

He was involved in student politics at Karachi University in the late 1970s and worked as a pharmacist. He went to the U.S. in the early 1980s and drove a cab in Chicago before returning to Karachi in 1984 where he started the MQM with two others, including Imran Farooq, the murdered man.

“Brother Altaf,” as he is usually known in the party, started out campaigning for mohajir rights and political power in Karachi, where the mohajirs are the biggest ethnic group.

The MQM was originally supported by the Pakistani military, as a counter to the Pakistan Peoples Party in the 1980s, according to security officials. PPP’s power base is in the rural parts of Sindh province, dominated by the ethnic Sindhi community. Its leader, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted in a military coup in 1977 and subsequently hanged.

By the early 1990s, however, the military lost control of the MQM.—just as it later lost control of some of the jihadist groups that it had sponsored. Mr. Hussain went into exile just ahead of a police crackdown. by police and other security forces that the MQM says killed more than 15,000 of its members, and saw what the MQM says was the torture of thousands of others, at a time when Mr. Bhutto’s daughter Benazir became the country’s prime minister. The authorities at the time said the MQM members were killed in clashes between them and security forces and denied the allegations of torture.

According to Karachi police, after the operation finished in 1996, the MQM found and executed at least 400 officers involved in the operation, in a killing spree that continues, police allege. Dozens of MQM members have been convicted and some sentenced to death but these were later overturned under an amnesty when the MQM was brought into government by Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Karachi police maintains a list of the dead. Police also claim that the MQM in the 1980s and early 1990s was running its own torture chambers, which were said by police to have used electric drills and electric shock, and to have cut up bodies and dumped them in sacks on the roadside.

“When the state wasn’t adhering to the rule of law, it is impossible to expect citizens to follow the rule of law. But the MQM as a party was never involved,” said Mr. Nusrat, referring to the accusations of torture and killings. “The MQM has never sanctioned the killing of any officers.”

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  1. Abhijit says:

    In my opinion it all srtated after ANP boycott of by-polls and the message to MQM seems clear and transparent that MQM win is not digestible to rival parties. It is of mere importance to note that Zulfiqar Mirza criticized MQM for Land reforms bill.

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