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The mixed reactions in Pakistan to Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain’s arrest in London are an indication of how much things have changed from the days when their writ ran large over the port city of Karachi. In those days, Hussain was hailed as the most influential non-resident political leader in Pakistan, eagerly sought after by British and Indian security establishments for an insight into Pakistan.
But aside from the burning of five vehicles within hours of news of his arrest, Karachi was calm. MQM workers staged a sit-in on the city’s main boulevard and forced businesses and public transport to shut down for three days. However, even though businesses remained shut, violence has been very low.
Hussain was released on bail after undergoing sustained questioning on Friday. According to the Metropolitan Police, Hussain, 60, is the third person arrested on suspicion of money-laundering. Hussain has been bailed to a date in July, the police said. His supporters in Karachi celebrated when the news of his bail reached the city.
But while Karachi came to a grinding halt when he was arrested. On Thursday, when there were hopes that the city’s businesses would re-open, unidentified armed men once again forced them shut.
In his heyday, the Hussain led-MQM, a party of Urdu-speaking immigrants from India who had chosen Pakistan during the partition, ruled the city for all practical purposes. Hussain, in the UK since 1992, became a British citizen in 2002. But his iron hold over the MQM never diminished and ensured that there was no successor after Hussain. If Hussain is found guilty of the charges and ends up in a British jail, there are fears that the MQM might split.
Shaun Gregory, professor of International Security at Durham University, told HT that “the immediate trigger for this arrest and why it was done hours before Hussain was reportedly due an angioplasty operation is still unclear, just as it is unclear what precisely the UK could do to him. Even if he were to be tried and convicted of an offence, he would simply be locked up — at the tax-payers expense — in the UK, from where he would continue to be able to run the MQM, albeit less easily. His arrest would seem to be an act of futility taken at considerable risk to the stability and security of Karachi and the wider Sindh”.
Hussain was arrested because he could not account for huge amounts of cash found from his London house in a raid in 2012 by the London Metropolitan police. This was followed by another raid in 2013. Political opponents say the money is from Pakistan where the MQM allegedly runs extortion rackets. Others say this money, which runs into millions of pounds, may have come from kickbacks on government contracts that were awarded when MQM was a coalition partner in the Zardari government. Either way, he will have to face trial if the UK government does not relent.
Ironically, a few days before his arrest, the Pakistan government agreed to issue him a national identity card for overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) which would allow him to travel to Pakistan on his British passport.