MagazinesPost Magazine

Fear & favour

He stands accused of inciting multiple murders in his home country, so how has Altaf Hussain, leader of Pakistan's controversial MQM party, been allowed to operate with apparent diplomatic impunity in London for more than two decades, asks Owen Bennett-Jones


Pakistan's most vibrant, vivacious and popular 24-hour news channel, Geo TV, generally has little difficulty recruiting staff. Its headquarters are in Karachi, Pakistan's so-called "city of dreams" - a massive, sprawling conurbation of 20 million residents all seeking a better life. But yet there was one vacancy recently that Geo TV could not fill. The channel wanted a lookalike for its popular satirical show, in which actors play the parts of the country's leading politicians. It was a job offering instant stardom and good money. And not a single person in Karachi was willing to do it.

The man Geo TV sought to satirise was Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). And the reason no one applied was the fear that if Hussain were unamused by the performance, the actor playing him would be murdered.

Anxiety about the MQM is not restricted to Pakistan. One member of Britain's House of Lords who has been openly critical of the movement, recently said: "If I went to Karachi now I would be killed."

Another peer has similar worries: "This is one issue I don't ask questions on. I have my child to worry about."

The man who has people looking over their shoulders does not even live in Karachi. For more than 20 years, Hussain has operated from the north London suburb of Edgware, beyond the reach of Pakistani prosecutors. He is almost completely unknown in his adopted country: his four-million-plus devoted supporters live thousands of miles away.

It's difficult to know how many murder cases have been registered against Hussain, but perhaps the most authoritative number was released in 2009 when the then president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, implemented his National Reconciliation Ordinance, granting most of the country's senior politicians accused of crimes an amnesty. One of the biggest beneficiaries was Hussain, against whom 72 cases were dropped, including 31 allegations of murder. The MQM rejects all the murder charges lodged against Hussain.

When Pakistan was created, in 1947, it had a population of 70 million. Besides the Bengalis in East Pakistan (who split away to form Bangladesh in 1971) there were four main indigenous groups: the Sindhis, the Baloch, the Pashtuns and the Punjabis. Partition brought a new element: Muslims who had fled Hindu-majority India. They were called the Mohajirs and most settled in Karachi, which was then the capital of Pakistan. This is the group represented by the Mohajir Qaumi Movement or, as it's now named, the Muttahida (United) Qaumi Movement.

At first the Mohajirs fared well. As many had spearheaded the campaign to create the country, they slipped naturally into leadership positions. But their disproportionate influence could never last. By the 1970s a political backlash, especially from Punjabis and Sindhis, was in full swing and many Mohajirs found themselves unable to secure jobs or even places in schools and universities. For a group that thought it had the right to govern, that came as a heavy blow. And the first man to exploit the Mohajirs' sense of grievance was Hussain.

In 1988, MQM candidates broke through and suddenly the party was the third largest in the National Assembly; and it has dominated Karachi politics ever since. Hussain has periodically flirted with demands for some kind of territorial settlement: "When everyone else had a province," he said in March 1984, "we said the Mohajirs should have one too." But for the most part he has accepted that such a demand is plainly unacceptable to the rest of Pakistan and has restricted himself to demands for greater Mohajir rights within the existing national framework.

The MQM's most vocal critic today is cricketer-turned-playboy-turned-politician Imran Khan, also a Muslim. In 2007, portraying himself as the man who dared to confront even the most entrenched political interests, Khan paid a visit to London's Metropolitan Police to hand over, he claimed, evidence of Hussain's wrongdoing. Apparently unimpressed with the quality of that evidence, the police did not bring any charges and Khan let the issue drop. But in May this year when one of his best-known party activists, Zahra Shahid Hussain, was shot down outside her Karachi home, Khan openly accused the MQM of her murder. Thousands of his social media-savvy supporters were encouraged to complain to the British police. More than 12,000 did so and the police responded by formally investigating Altaf Hussain's London activities.

There are a number of strands to the Met's inquiries. First there is the issue of whether the MQM leader is using his London base to incite violence in Pakistan. In assessing that, the police have a huge amount of material to sift through, much of it online. At his birthday party in 2009, for example, Hussain regaled his guests with a remark aimed at Pakistan's rich landowners and businessmen: "You've made big allegations against the MQM. If you make those allegations to my face one more time you'll be taking down your measurements and we'll prepare your body bags."

Because he is in London, Hussain addresses rallies in Karachi over the telephone. Crowds gather to listen to his voice through loudspeakers. In one such speech he had this message for television news anchors: "If you don't stop the lies and false allegations that damage our party's reputation, then don't blame me, Altaf Hussain, or the MQM if you get killed by any of my millions of supporters."

Most of his threats have been aimed at people in Pakistan but at least one was directed at British journalist Azhar Javaid who asked a question once too often. At a press conference in September 2011 Hussain warned Javaid that his "body bag was ready".

Addressing those whom he accused of denying the Mohajirs their rights, last December, Hussain said: "If your father won't give us freedom just listen to this sentence carefully: then we will tear open your father's abdomen. To get our freedom we will not only tear it out of your father's abdomen but yours as well."

Partly because of the difficulty of establishing unchallengeable translations of Hussain's words, it might be months before the police decide whether to recommend a prosecution. In the meantime there is talk of a private prosecution. British politician George Galloway, a long-time MQM critic, recently set up a fund to pay the legal fees for such an initiative.

On two occasions British judges have found that the MQM is a violent organisation. In 2010, a Karachi-based police officer sought asylum in Britain claiming the MQM was threatening to kill him in revenge for his having registered a case against one of its members. The judge, Lord Bannatyne, granted asylum and in his judgment accepted that: "the MQM has killed over 200 police officers who stood up to them in Karachi."

The figure is often cited by the Karachi police themselves, and refers to those officers who were closely involved in Benazir Bhutto's anti-MQM crackdown, Operation Clean-up. It came in 1995, during Bhutto's second government. Unable to rely on the slow, intimidated and corrupt courts, the security forces resorted to hundreds if not thousands of extrajudicial killings of MQM activists. Many of the police officers responsible have subsequently been murdered. The MQM, however, refutes any allegations of inciting violence from London.

When asked about these allegations, the MQM issued the following statement to The Guardian newspaper: "We'd also like to point out here that it is the MQM that has been the worst victim of violence in recent history of the country. The Taliban and other jihadi elements have killed scores of MQM members …"

As well as the incitement investigation, British police are currently running another MQM-related inquiry. It concerns the September 2010 murder of a senior MQM member, Imran Farooq, who was stabbed to death outside his flat in Edgware. For the British authorities, his murder crossed a red line. London is open to outsiders - but they have to leave their violent politics at home.

The Met's Counter Terrorism Command has launched a massive and sustained investigation into Farooq's death. Last December, it raided the MQM's Edgware offices, where it found thousands of documents. Since most of the material is in Urdu and some, from MQM lawyers, is subject to client privilege, assessing it is extremely time-consuming.

In its statement to The Guardian, the movement said: "MQM understands that as part of that ongoing investigation, the Metropolitan Police have interviewed several hundred people. MQM has assisted the ongoing police investigation whenever it has been requested to do so. A number of MQM party members have also voluntarily offered to be witnesses to assist the ongoing police investigation. Mr Altaf Hussain, MQM's party leader, has not been arrested nor charged with any criminal offence. The police are treating Mr Hussain as one of a large number of potential witnesses in their investigation and not as a suspect."

Shortly after the murder the police found a significant number of papers stashed in Farooq's home. Some of the documents gave credence to confessions made by suspected MQM militants in Karachi. Repeatedly, MQM activists there had told the Pakistani authorities they were trained in India. Asked on numerous occasions about the country's relationship with the MQM, Indian government officials have failed to make any statement on the matter. Recent police raids have turned up £150,000 (HK$1.78 million) at the party's Edgware offices and £250,000 at Hussain's house in Mill Hill.

The police say they are making significant progress in the Farooq murder case and have an ever-clearer understanding of what they believe was a conspiracy to kill him. Their investigation, however, is complicated by the fact that the MQM has supporters deep within the Pakistani state who want to protect it, and more cynical actors such as the country's main intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which want to control it.

However, the recent elections in Pakistan have left the MQM politically weaker and there is a distinct possibility that the govern-ment of Nawaz Sharif will be less protective of the party than the previous administration.

Aware that Farooq's killer or killers may be thousands of miles away and, the British police believe, back in Pakistan, their investigation has focused on who might have ordered the murder. Having promised full co-operation with the British authorities, Hussain has also complained that he is the subject of a witch-hunt and a conspiracy.

Recent British police actions have included the arrest of Hussain's nephew, Ishtiaq Hussain (who is now bailed until next month). The police won't divulge why he was arrested. Intriguingly, Altaf Hussain also let slip that he himself and the MQM are being investigated for money laundering. The question is: where does all the money seized in the raids and that used to buy the MQM's extensive British property portfolio come from? In the statement to The Guardian, the MQM denies the laundering allegations. "It is reiterated here that the party, its leader Mr Altaf Hussain or any other member of the Party has never dealt with any money that is the proceeds of crime. MQM's legal team has already submitted effective answers to questions concerning the cash seized from the party's office, whereas legal responses would be submitted shortly concerning the cash seized from Mr Altaf Hussain's residence."

With a condescension that is increasingly grating to the Pakistani public, Washington and London produce a regular flow of statements expressing concern about Pakistani human rights abuses. But the issue of human rights monitoring is suffused with double standards. The abuses listed by the United States and Britain may be real, but they also provide diplomatic ammunition to be held in reserve and deployed should the need arise.

Britain itself has questions to answer. It has resisted Islamabad's repeated requests to hand over Hussain so he can stand trial for murder in Pakistan. Hussain arrived in London in February 1992 and just three years later, Bhutto - then prime minister - was asking for London's help. "I think the British government has a moral responsibility to restrain Mr Altaf Hussain and say you cannot use our soil for violence," she said.

Eighteen years later, Khan's appeal was strikingly similar: "I blame the British government. Would they allow someone to sit in Pakistan and threaten people in the UK? They know about his track record."

If Hussain were a suspected London-based jihadi, many Pakistanis believe, he would have been arrested years ago.

Pakistanis point to other instances where they believe Britain has favoured Hussain. In 2002, he was issued with a British passport. Off the record, British officials admit the process by which he obtained nationality was flawed - a decision in January 1999 to grant him indefinite leave to remain in Britain was made as a result of a "clerical error". Despite repeated questions, the Home Office has refused to disclose what that error was.

Most Pakistanis dismiss the idea of a clerical error as risible. They point to a letter the prime minister's office received from Hussain as evidence of how Britain and the MQM have tried to conceal the true nature of their relationship. Written two weeks after September 11, in it Hussain says that if Britain wanted hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Karachi denouncing terrorism he could lay that on with just five days' notice. He claimed he could also organise human intelligence on the Taliban and could set up a network of fake aid workers in Afghanistan to back up Western intelligence gathering efforts there.

After a copy of the letter appeared on the internet, the MQM denied its authenticity. Disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act have established that the letter is in fact authentic. Faced with that information, Britain's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) admitted it had received the letter.

As Hussain suggests in the letter, British interest in the MQM is largely driven by the perception that the party offers a defence against jihadis. But there is more to it than that. The MQM is on British turf: Karachi is one of the few places left on Earth in which the Americans let Britain take the lead. The US consulate in Karachi no longer runs active intelligence-gathering operations in the city. The British still do. When it comes to claiming a place at the top table of international security politics, London's relationship with the MQM is a remaining toehold.

And there's something else. The FCO's most important currency is influence. Successive Pakistani governments, when they are not demanding Hussain's extradition, have included his parliamentary bloc in various coalition governments. From the FCO's point of view, it's a great source of access. Right on their doorstep, in London, they have a man with ministers in the Pakistani government.

For its part, the British government insists there is nothing unusual about its contacts with the MQM and that its meetings with MQM officials are "a normal part of diplomatic activity around the world".

I spoke to a British official recently about the MQM and asked why the British government, so keen to declare its commitment to human rights, seems so willing to deal with the party despite officials privately saying it uses violence to achieve its goals. She said: "There is one thing I can assure you of - it's not a conspiracy." Which in a sense is true. It's not a conspiracy. It's just policy.

Guardian News and Media



Send to a friend

To forward this article using your default email client (e.g. Outlook), click here.

Fear & favour

Enter multiple addresses separated by commas(,)