An Exiled Pakistani Politician Is Leading Millions from A Remote London Suburb

Altaf Hussain—leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement, a mainstream political party in Pakistan—has held a tight grip on nearly four million Mojahirs supporters through militant propaganda and incendiary speeches that he's been delivering remotely for...

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Dec 16 2013, 12:35pm

An MQM election graphic with Altaf Hussain (picture via)

Last December, tens of thousands of people gathered in Karachi, Pakistan’s mega-city. The speaker was not on stage, instead addressing his rapt audience over the phone. The disembodied voice rang out through loud-speakers. “If your father won’t give us freedom—and 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.”

The crowd were supporters of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a political party representing Mohajirs—the people who migrated from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. The speaker was Altaf Hussain, the party’s founder, incongruously addressing the crowd from his house in a London suburb. Hussain commands fanatical support from nearly four million Mohajirs, all of whom desire increased rights for their ethnic group, and the MQM operates mainly on the force of his personality. As such, Hussain retains a tight grip, and has run his party remotely for more than 20 years.

Hussain fled to London in 1992 when the MQM was engaged in a violent street battle with security forces over control of Karachi. He was granted political asylum in the UK, and obtained a British passport about ten years later. It’s difficult to count how many murder charges have been logged against him in Pakistan but the New York Times has described it as "dozens." And in 2007, 31 were dropped when then President General Pervez Musharraf controversially granted amnesty to Pakistani politicians accused of significant criminal charges. Having lived in Karachi, I can vouch for the fact that the British government’s failure to deliver him home to face the courts is a regular talking point in the city.

But that situation could be changing since police are currently investigating three separate cases involving the MQM. The first is whether Hussain is using his base in London to incite violence in Karachi through his incendiary speeches (like ones about tearing things out of people's dads' abdomens). The investigation was prompted by Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who accused Hussain of causing the death of Zahra Shahid Hussain, a senior activist from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party. She was shot dead in Karachi in May, though the MQM have denied any involvement in the murder and derided Khan's allegation as "immature".

The second charge is money laundering. After 12,000 PTI supporters complained to the Met about Zahra Shahid Hussain’s death, police raided the party’s office in Edgware and Altaf Hussain’s house. When I spoke to the Met, they confirmed that they found "a significant amount of cash" at the property and are investigating how it came to be there, though again the MQM have denied the allegations.

The third investigation has involved Hussain as a witness rather than a suspect and relates to the murder of MQM worker Imran Farooq. Farooq was stabbed to death outside his flat in Edgware in September 2010, prompting a tearful Hussain to appear on TV mourning the loss of his friend, who the police believe was about to launch his own political career. They have said "this remains a key line of inquiry" in their investigation, which has thus far seen them speak to over 4,000 people.

MGM leader Altaf Hussein (Photo via)

So, given he's been living in self-exile here for two decades, why has it taken so long for the British authorities to investigate?

“The MQM has successfully managed to persuade sections of the international community that it stands against militant jihadists,” explains Dr Farzana Shaikh, Asia fellow at Chatham House. “When I speak to foreign diplomats, they always point to the MQM as a secular party.”

The MQM is one of the few parties in Pakistan that is vocal in its condemnation of terrorism—others are frightened into silence. This outspoken stance, adopted in the wake of 9/11 has won them international favor. It emerged earlier this year that Hussain had written to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, promising human intelligence on the Taliban. This may have contributed to the British government’s reluctance to deliver him to the Pakistani authorities, despite numerous requests.

The MQM is a mainstream political party in Pakistan. It has served in local and central governments and formed parliamentary alliances with different parties since its formation in 1984. Therefore, working with the MQM also gives the British government a close insight into the workings of power in Pakistan.

Politics in Pakistan are notoriously bloodsoaked. In Karachi, the country’s economic hub, around 15 people die every day in target killings, many of which are political. Most mainstream parties—including the MQM, a key player in Karachi, where it originated—have an armed militant wing, engaged in violent turf wars with other parties (the MQM, along with other parties, denies this). Such violence has an ethnic element since most political parties are tied to ethnic groups. The MQM is no exception. It began as a student movement in the late 1970s, responding to discrimination against Mohajirs.

The MQM runs a tight ship—its spokespeople are articulate and stress the party’s liberal, secular agenda. Yet there is an undercurrent of intimidation that suppresses freedom of speech. “It’s a big problem in Pakistan. People don’t want to write reports against the MQM,” says one Pakistani journalist who asked not to be named. “There are threats, intimidation and worse.There are beatings and deaths. People can disappear.”

MGM leader Altaf Hussein (Photo via)

Occasionally, these threats are made in the open. In September 2011, at a press conference in London, Pakistani journalist Azhar Javaid aroused Hussain’s anger by repeating the same question. “Your body bag is ready,” Hussain shouted. MQM supporters have claimed that this was a joke, but if it was it wasn't that funny since body bags are a notorious hallmark of the MQM’s militant wing. 

Whether the current investigation will result in arrests or trials is unclear and the MQM has downplayed the situation. "The UK issue has already been talked about millions of times, and we have nothing else to add to what we have already said,” a spokesman told me by text message. But behind the scenes, its working on defenses.

A policeman walks through a street in Karachi

The case will probably rest on translation—Hussain’s speeches are in Urdu, as was his threat to Javaid–and the MQM’s lawyers can contest English translations. “If you listen to the speeches, it’s very clear they meet the criteria for inciting violence,” said one Urdu-speaking lawyer who asked not to be named because he makes frequent trips to Karachi and “doesn’t want to end up in a body bag." But, of course, its difficult to prove the meaning of words. Hussain is a manic and emotional public speaker—he often bursts into tears, or song, depending on his mood. “Even if he doesn’t mean it, his words are taken very seriously by his worshippers,” says Ali Chishti, Karachi-based journalist.

The money laundering case is potentially very damaging. Sources in Karachi tell me that the MQM is securing signed affidavits from businessmen saying that they legally donated the money. “The MQM is aware that it is facing a very critical time with the investigations,” says Chishti. “People fear that Altaf’s arrest would provoke violence in Karachi.”

The Karachi skyline

You only have to spend a few weeks in Karachi to understand how much power the MQM wields. I was living there last year, when the Pakistan Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice against Hussain. The party called a strike. Overnight, masked men on motorbikes drove through the city firing into the air as a warning. No one went to work the next day. Those who did were sent home by more masked gunmen. A city of 20 million people was brought to a standstill with less than 12 hours notice.

“The main reason for the gentle approach to investigation is the possibility that Karachi may go up in flames,” says Shaikh. “There is an ordered disorder in Pakistan and there is a fear that this will simply shatter if Altaf Hussain is arrested. And the British government is aware of that.” 

As of now, no one can comment on the ongoing investigation, but it'll be a long haul. Whether it results in prosecutions is a burning question—not just for the MQM, profoundly anxious about its future—but for the population of Karachi.

Follow Samira on Twitter: @samirashackle

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