MQM in disarray over Altaf arrest

Should you ever visit Edgware Road tube station in central London you will find yourself within a few minutes’ walk of a whole series of properties owned by Pakistan’s political elite.

Down on Park Lane and Hyde Park Street there are the opulent homes of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family. Should you want to find former Interior Minister Rehman Malik, just look for his Bentley: if he is in London it will probably be parked just outside his terraced house. And then there’s the flat of the former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, which, owing to his being under house arrest in Islamabad, has not had much use recently. Mind you, if you wanted to get a message through to him you could always nip round the corner to the fine, ordered square in which his Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz now resides.

Having completed that political tourism, now stand on the Edgware Road itself and look north. About an hour’s drive up there you would reach the edge of London and the last stop on that tube line. You would be in the district of Edgware itself. A million pounds near Edgware Road tube station will buy you a one-bedroomed garret. In Edgware it will be enough for a five-bedroomed house. It’s a place that few visit. After all, not much happens in commuter land. At least that’s how it seems.

But appearances can be deceptive. Because for over 20 years, the quiet streets of Edgware have provided the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain with the base from which he has run Karachi.

On the phone for hours each day, and with a series of personal messengers flying back and forth, Hussain has managed to maintain an iron grip on his party and on Pakistan’s biggest, richest, most vibrant city. And partly perhaps because he based himself in such an obscure part of London, he has managed for many years to operate under the radar. A few British diplomats and assorted spies might visit him from time to time, but for the most part the most powerful and famous politician in Karachi was hidden in plain sight.

Altaf Hussain’s party, the MQM, represents the grievances and aspirations of the refugees or Mohajirs and their descendants who fled from India during Partition and who now live in Pakistan. Initially the Mohajirs, whose ranks included many of those who had agitated for the new country, fared well. They secured a disproportionately large share of the senior political positions and bureaucratic jobs. But gradually the indigenous inhabitants of Pakistan asserted themselves and the Mohajirs complained they were being discriminated against.

It was a genuine political problem and it gave Altaf Hussain a solid base which, with the help of his formidable party organisation, has reliably returned around 20 members of the National Assembly, most representing constituencies in Karachi. That parliamentary bloc, combined with the MQM’s reputation for using violence to enforce its will, has made Hussain one of Pakistan’s most powerful leaders.

And over the years that has been of great interest to British diplomats, who did not take long to realise that with a short cab ride to north London they could be sitting face to face with a Pakistani political heavyweight.

It suited everyone. The British had a source of influence in one of the world’s most geopolitically important countries. Better still, because he wanted to remain in the UK, Hussain was keen to please his British hosts. Given the number of murder and other cases he faced in Karachi, he was not overly keen to head back home.

These cosy arrangements came to an end because of a murder in London. In September 2010 one of Altaf Hussain’s senior party colleagues, Imran Farooq, was stabbed to death outside his home in Edgware. For the British police — who from an early stage concluded the motive was political — Farooq’s killing crossed a red line. There are many political refugees in London with all sorts of violent reputations. But with the exception of a few jihadis, the British authorities are generally content to leave them be. But should any of London’s political exiles bring their violence to the streets of the British capital, they can expect to be investigated.

Realising that he was at risk of being attacked, Imran Farooq had taken the precaution of stashing a huge number of MQM-related documents under his bed. For once the MQM’s generally impressive organisational skills let them down. The British investigators reached the bed first and the material they found there kicked off a whole series of enquiries into what the MQM actually does.

There have been four separate investigations. The first was into Altaf Hussain’s telephonically transmitted speeches to thousands of his supporters in Karachi. He has on some occasions used violent language, telling people, for example, that their body bags were ready for them.

On the face of it, that comes close to inciting violence but the MQM offered two lines of defence: some of Altaf Hussain’s threats, the party argued, had been jokes and others were mistranslated. After an extensive trawl through the leader’s utterances, the police concluded last month that they could not risk charges. If the MQM lawyers managed to cast doubt over the accuracy of the police translations, then the jury might have felt there was a reasonable doubt about his guilt. Given the high profile nature of the case and the risk of a backlash in Karachi, the UK authorities were reluctant to charge unless they were sure of a conviction. Consequently the case was dropped.

The second investigation, into Imran Farooq’s murder, has also reached something of a cul de sac, despite the UK and Pakistani authorities now having a clear idea of what happened. They believe two men, whose names they have released, were flown from Karachi to London to carry out the killing. Hours after the murder they caught a flight back home, travelling via the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.

Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI, became aware that the two men were returning and picked them up at Karachi airport. They remain in ISI custody. The British have asked Pakistan for access to the two men but so far it has not been granted. Again, fear of a violent reaction in Karachi is a factor.

From the MQM’s point of view, the remaining two investigations are more troubling. The first is into the MQM’s tax arrangements. Senior party figures freely admit they have never paid tax in the UK on the grounds that they thought the Foreign Office would protect them from the tax authorities. But the murder of Imran Farooq changed everything. If any protection was being offered, it isn’t any more and the party is now likely to face a stiff tax bill. Having said that, the MQM is so wealthy it is confident that it will be able to pay whatever bill it is presented with.

The fourth investigation is the most serious. In June Altaf Hussain was arrested for money laundering. He has not yet been charged and it is not clear what evidence the UK authorities are relying on. But it is unlikely that they would have arrested him without a high degree of confidence that charges could follow. The nature of the British money laundering legislation may be a factor. Compared to some other offences, it’s relatively easy to secure a money laundering conviction as the defendant has to prove that he had no reason to suspect that the money he handled (large wodges of cash were found in Hussain’s home) came from illegitimate sources.

Ever since 2010, Altaf Husain has hoped that his cordial relationship with the British establishment would mean that he would never be arrested. In making that calculation he did not attach sufficient weight to the independence of the UK police.

The arrest has left the MQM in some disarray. As its founder and dominant leader, Altaf Hussain has always been the party’s sole decision-maker.
Even friends of the MQM believe that, without him, the party is likely to split in to various, probably violent, factions. And then there will be two battles: one in the London courts and the other on the streets of Karachi.

— Owen Bennett-Jones