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Growing extortion menace haunts Karachi

Published Jul 02, 2013 11:43am


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A civil society group, the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), displays one of several extortion demands handed over to them by businessmen based in Karachi, June 14, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
A civil society group, the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), displays one of several extortion demands handed over to them by businessmen based in Karachi, June 14, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
A private armed security guard keeps his eyes on a passage as shopkeepers work along a covered cloth market in Karachi, June 13, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
A private armed security guard keeps his eyes on a passage as shopkeepers work along a covered cloth market in Karachi, June 13, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
Majyd Aziz Balagamwala, ex-president Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), gestures during an interview at his residence in Karachi June 14, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
Majyd Aziz Balagamwala, ex-president Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), gestures during an interview at his residence in Karachi June 14, 2013. — Photo by Reuters

One afternoon a stranger called at Muhammad Faizanullah's stationery shop in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital, and wordlessly handed the man behind the counter two items: a piece of paper with a phone number scrawled on it, and a bullet.

"The letter contained a demand for 200,000 Pakistani rupees," Faizanullah, 20, said. "The man said 'Just call this number and pay the amount, otherwise the bullet is meant for you.'"

Businesses in Karachi are facing a surge in extortion demands from criminal gangs, forcing many owners to delay new investment or to relocate their families to escape the sense of insecurity gripping the urban heart of Pakistan's economy.

The worsening law and order situation in Karachi, which generates 25 per cent of Pakistan's economic activity, presents one of the many challenges new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must overcome to fulfill promises to set Pakistan on a path to faster growth.

An expanding middle class is fuelling consumer spending but extortion is hurting confidence among thousands of family-run firms that form the backbone of the economy.

With the month of Ramazan due to start in July, a traditional time for extortionists to come calling, Karachi traders and shopkeepers are braced for what police say will be a record year of demands.

"The extortion racket has blown out of all proportion with the previous year," said Ahmed Chinoy, chief of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a Karachi body set up to help police by providing crime statistics and technical support.

The growing demands reflect the shifting dynamics of a city of 18 million people where new challengers, including Pakistan's Taliban movement, are locked in an increasingly violent, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood battle for control.

Figures collected by Chinoy's committee show there were more than 630 extortion complaints registered in Karachi from January to mid-June, compared to 589 in the whole of last year. Most cases were registered by people who have refused to pay.

Police say the actual number of incidents is many times higher since the vast majority of extortion demands go unreported and victims usually decide to pay. There is no way to know the sums involved, but police say payments run into tens of millions of dollars annually and that 2013 will be a record year.

Ten days after the extortionist paid his visit to Faizanullah's shop in the bustling Alam cloth market in December, two men on motorbikes stopped him, his father and uncle as they were driving home from work.

One of the men, a gun visible in his waistband, told Faizanullah: "You people don't seem to understand our polite attitude, we will have to shoot you." They demanded the men's cellphones and roared away.

"We live under constant stress," Faizanullah said. But he has insisted that his family refuse to hand over any cash.

Professionals, not just shopkeepers, are also targets.

When Javed Hanif, a doctor, answered his cellphone in June the caller reeled off a list of Hanif's personal details: his work in a government hospital, the registration number of his car, and preparations for his son's wedding. The man demanded 500,000 Pakistani rupees.

Hand grenades

Karachi traders say paying extortion has long been part of the cost of doing business in Karachi.

The police have also linked political parties to extortion in Karachi, although the parties repeatedly deny any involvement.

In the past year, the rules of the game have changed as competing political parties, militant groups and criminal entrepreneurs have expanded their extortion rackets to fund ever deadlier turf wars, police officials say.

The number of killings in Karachi jumped to more than 2,300 in 2012 from 1,700 the previous year. More than 1,400 murders have already been recorded since the start of this year. The increasing death toll has made it easier for gangs to coerce people into paying money, although there have been few reports of extortion-related killings.

"The extortion racket in Karachi has become an industry," said senior police officer Niaz Ahmed Khosa.

"There are around 50 no-go areas in Karachi, which police can not enter. Most of the extortion rackets and other crime are being generated from these population pockets."

The police blame much of the increase in extortion on a criminal gang based in the district of Lyari, which they say is expanding into new parts of the city. The gang, the police say, is linked to a political party.

"If some political party says they are not involved in the extortion racket, they are lying," said Majyad Aziz Balagamwala, a former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Police say Pakistan's Taliban movement, which originated on the northwestern frontier with Afghanistan, has also ramped up extortion operations in Karachi in the past year and has been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of police.

In spite of the climate of fear, business sentiment is not universally bleak. Retail is booming in Karachi, symbolised by the opening of a flashy modern shopping centre called Dolmen Mall Clifton in 2011 which showcases international brands such as Debenhams and Fatburger.

But nobody is immune from an extortionist's call.

Byram D. Avari, the owner of a prominent hotel chain and a well-known figure in Karachi, refused to pay the demands of a caller who threatened to set off hand grenades at his hotels and home. But many others dare not say no.

Comments (27) Closed

Khan Jul 02, 2013 12:26pm

These extortionist of lyari under the leadership of zylfiqar mirza ex interior minister of sindh are so powerful now that they send an MNA and 2 MPA to assemblies and the CM of Sindh went to attend dinner party at lyari after taking oath. Now why the extortion industry should not flourish.

fida sayani Jul 02, 2013 02:15pm

I do not understand as to why DAWN is reluctant to name the political party whose gonda

Tahir Alam Jul 02, 2013 03:14pm

We are not only facing Taliban and BLA here in Pakistan but the worst is that, as mentioned in this report, that our political parties are involved in extortion and terrorism.

nasser Jul 02, 2013 04:02pm

As far as I concerned my enemy is not across the border, they are within Pakistan. Mr. Kiyani, and head of security apparatus, politicians stop living extravagantly and traveling in security escorts using mine and others sweat and blood taxed money and do something to protect my family, or we will simply stop working and migrate back to where we came from. Jul 02, 2013 04:30pm

This is really a problem for all of us. A month ago, my wife visiting her parents in Clifton, Karachi, received a SMS where a person from Kati Pahari was demanding Rs 20M. SMS was then followed up with telephone calls. We contacted CPCLC, Rangers, Police and the Army (as my brother is a Maj General), but none of them was able to assist us, as the extortionist had "influential" backing. I was advised by all the aforesaid security apparatus to either negotiate or leave Karachi. I decided to adopt the later route and immediately pulled out my family from Pakistan. The extortionist is living openly and freely in Karachi. His name is known to everyone and his whereabouts are known to everyone. I still fail to understand why my family (and not him) had to abandon our freedom and make a forced exit from our homeland. I think my children will never see Karachi ever again. Thank you our security apparatus. Aamir Nawaid - Doha, Qatar.

Murad Iqbal Jul 02, 2013 04:47pm

Unfortunately its true all major political and terrorist parties are involved in this extortion in Karachi and to be honest it is quite unlikely the law enforcement authorities are not getting their share.

AKMalick Jul 02, 2013 05:40pm

There are around 50 no-go areas in Karachi, which police can not enter. Most of the extortion rackets and other crime are being generated from these population pockets

50 no go areas which police can't enter ! It is same situation as is in Waziristan. why only blame talibans of Waziristan. There seems to be no writ of the government in Karachi.

Khalid Jul 02, 2013 06:03pm

Shopkeepers should be given guns as soon as possible and it should be announced that anyone asking for money will be in danger of getting shot. This is the only way forward. Criminals are running around with guns and poor businessmen are scared to death. How long will this continue?. Lawlessness of Karachi can not be compared to any other city in the world. Governement should also announce that anyone caught with a gun will be put in jail for 10 years and let us see how many will dare. Police themselves unfortunately, are involved in these activities (if the reports are to believed). The chief of plice or the interior minister should all senior police officer in the country and should be given clear warnings. I am not sure if this has ever been done. Every governement "selects" their own "good policemen" and that destroys everything. Do we anything on the basis of merit?

Qaiser Bakhtiari Jul 02, 2013 06:30pm

Thanks for highlighting the issue but why did the writer not name the political parties that are involved in this? Self-Censorship?

aisha ali Jul 02, 2013 07:42pm

I have witnessed a extortion case with my husband in which people from Lyari with Rangers were involved. My husband was picked up by unknown persons at a Rangers checkpoint (probably some agencies people in clothes in govt plated vehicle) on the way back from work and handed over to criminals in Lyari. We paid 30 lacs for my husband release and they the kidnappers took everything valuable from our house. This was happened last month and now we are in the process of moving abroad ASAP. Thanks to law enforcement agencies who are patronizing crimes in Karachi.

Faisal Jul 02, 2013 07:43pm

How come he is giving phone nubmber and is it not tackable? it means that security agencies are also part of this game because easy and good amount of money.

khurram Jul 02, 2013 09:12pm

This is such a shame! Im now in Canada and my family lives in lahore but I feel so much pain for the people living in karachi as I've been there few times and have seen people afraid to death, carrying moneys in their socks, not going on streets in the nights and this thing has affected karachi people not just in a financial way but psychological and emotional ways too. We want our city of lights back to its normal and for that I believe people will have to stand up against all these forces, which involve government and all other parties with terrorist wings. Die one day instead of dying everyday!! May ALLAH bless Pakistan and Karachi in particular!!

waseem Jul 02, 2013 10:19pm

@AKMalick: Please name these areas.

Hammid Jul 02, 2013 11:00pm

@fida sayani: lived in khi for 6 mo, and you, along with others who are non-khi, now know who is behind all! thats gr8! all problems solved! Not just one, other parties and our police as well- there are a lot of jobless "contractors" avaiable now, which were not here 5-6 yrs ago.

Khan Jul 02, 2013 11:23pm

@fida sayani: Just visit the Jails of Karachi and you will be suprised to find out most of the criminals are from outside Karachi not urdu speaking.

Khan Jul 02, 2013 11:34pm What is the guarantee the law enforcement institutions are not part of Rs 3 billion annually extortion industry of Karachi as the law enforcement agencies are imported from other provinces and are not stakeholders of Karachi. The current Talibanization of Karachi is carried out under the nose of the same Law enforcement agencies who are busy in running Water tanker services, Land Grabbing, Housing schemes, Running colleges and school and other commercial activities. Karachi is Dubai loot as much as you can ....

Umair Zaeem Jul 03, 2013 12:24am

@fida sayani: Really? I had a different experience. Most of the victims inluding myself have only been robbed by either punjabis, sindhis, liyari gangsters and/ or pathans (TTP). And I happen to have lived in Karachi for two decades.

Najamuddin Jul 03, 2013 12:28am 50 no go areas in Karachi well known to CM, Governor, SHC, Supreme Court, PM, President, federal Govt; Army and all the law enforcement agencies,major local and national medias and all major political parties. Still these havens of criminals are thriving on the sufferings and dead bodies of helpless citizens. Aamir Nawaid whose comments I am replying got SMS and phones to pay 20M or to face deaths of loved ones. His own brother is Major General as per his subject comment. He contacted higher all possible authorities concerned giving the name of extortionists but was advised to negotiate or leave with family to save their lives because of the higher influence of the extortionists? At last the family had to quit their most beloved motherland with bleeding hearts. Similar is the story of thousands of patriotic citizens already having left before? When the custodians of the lives and property of the people themselves become the worst marauders of their nation how can we have any hope of betterment? The media is helpless because they do not have protection from any side?

Dilawer Jul 03, 2013 12:45am

@fida sayani: Tagging as group by whatever category is not right. Address the issue perpetrated by any. Nothing can be solved by categorizing the color,sex, age, of place of origin of criminals or whatever language they speak. Police is in cahoots with criminals and also the political parties. I do not know who are the bigots who gave thumbs up to your post. Obviously not very bright people.

Najamuddin Jul 03, 2013 12:46am

@Khan: This is true. Since long well known terrorists having taken over Karachi and major cities of Sind as hostage, extorting and looting the people at sweet will and with full immunity during rule of last military dictator, been sending many times more members to National and Provincial Assemblies and also in the ruling cabinets? This sent a message to the criminals, terrorists and extortionists all over the Country that Karachi is the best fertile place to run their business. Now since previous Govt all these terrorists and extortionists are but natural byproducts of the former.

Dilawer Jul 03, 2013 12:53am

There will not be any financial growth and creation of jobs if the extortion persists. I personally know families who shut down their businesses and lost all their investments and hard work due to ext orations. Home robberies are part of this problems too. This is the only crime where I support capital punishment. Society can not progress when the individual's property and lives are under constant threat. This is the real issue and more we discuss about it the less it seems. I am not sure why this issue has not been discussed more openly as it deserves.

Dilawer Jul 03, 2013 01:02am

This is some very serious issue and so far only 7 comments???

Haris Jul 03, 2013 02:32am

There should be no said "NO GO AREAS " anywhere. Only when the police will put the fear of God in these criminal will this stop. they needto know they are not above the law.

Siraj Jul 03, 2013 02:54am

@fida sayani: "Urdu speaking" really ?

please avoid racial remarks. i live in Karachi , i know whats going on here !!

Siraj Jul 03, 2013 03:02am

i have very simple question to all of you . why there was no extortion from governor Moin Haider's time to Musharraf time (98-2008) in Karachi ?

Akil Akhtar Jul 03, 2013 04:29am

@nasser: More than welcome to go back and take your MQM with you. Also think maybe your support for a particular party is behind the violence in Karachi....

mike ghaous Jul 03, 2013 06:11am

'Retail is booming in KHI.' everything is booming in karachi.Restaurant & eateries, movie theatres , goes on,,