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Watch this space

July 15, 2013

There was quite a buzz among my Pakistani friends in the UK before the BBC documentary on Altaf Hussain recently. Newsnight, the nightly news programme on which it aired, is the BBC’s premier current affairs slot, and focuses on in-depth coverage and analysis.

Usually anchored by Jeremy Paxman — known as the Rottweiler of British TV journalism — the interviews are often confrontational and bruising. So when I learned that Newsnight was doing a report prepared by Owen Bennet-Jones, a well-known BBC reporter and author of a widely respected book about Pakistan, I made sure I wasn’t doing anything else when the programme aired.

By now, most people interested in the MQM phenomenon are aware of the ground the report covered so I won’t repeat its many allegations here. It clearly aroused deep concern in Pakistan where it became the subject of a number of TV chat shows. On one of them, a panellist said the Nawaz Sharif government should demand the extradition of the MQM chief to Pakistan, and try him here.

But this is scarcely an option, given the fact that Altaf Hussain is a UK citizen. When the British government sought to deport Abu Qatada, the controversial radical cleric, back to his native Jordan, it took over a decade. And this is when he entered the UK on a fake passport, and did not enjoy legal status.

In his long legal battle to stay, he went from one level of appeal to the next, and when he finally ran out of appellate courts in the UK, his lawyers moved the EU human rights court. This is the highest bench for such cases for EU members, and it decreed that Abu Qatada could not be sent back to Jordan as the country had used evidence obtained though torture to convict him.

Here the matter stood, to the intense fury of many Brits who felt this was a slight to their own judiciary, and a further example of EU interference. Theresa May, the home secretary, was deeply embarrassed by her continued failure to ship Abu Qatada out of the country.

In the event, the Jordanian agreed to leave after the UK negotiated an agreement with Jordan to the effect that it would not use evidence obtained under duress in any further legal proceedings. But it took 10 years and millions of pounds to finally put him on a plane to Amman.

So clearly, deporting Altaf Hussain is not an easy option. According to legal experts, it would take an Act of Parliament to strip Altaf Hussain of his British nationality in order for deportation proceedings to begin. And the next hurdle would be Pakistani law: he could fight to stay in the UK on the grounds that his home country has the death penalty. Also, EU laws prohibit the deportation of people to countries that routinely inflict torture on suspects.

So what are the prospects of arresting and trying the MQM chief in the UK? Currently, three different lines of inquiry are being pursued against him. Firstly, some 400,000 pounds have been recovered from his house and office. The question being asked is whether the money has been legally earned in the UK, and if tax has been paid on it. And if it came from abroad, did it bypass legal banking channels? In short, is money laundering involved?

The second charge — and one made by tens of thousands of PTI supporters in Pakistan and the UK — is that Altaf Hussain incited his supporters in Karachi to violence. The Home Office is apparently getting the relevant speeches translated and analysed. The third and potentially most serious charge is that Dr Imran Farooq’s murder in London a couple of years ago might have been sanctioned at the highest level of the MQM. One suspect was arrested and is now on bail.

For all these charges, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is called on to decide if there is sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution. This is routinely done to ensure that state resources are not wasted on cases that are unlikely to end with a conviction. And yet, judging from recent media attention surrounding these cases, there is some pressure on the police and the CPS to move them along.

Only time will tell what the fallout of a successful prosecution would be. But judging from Dr Farooq Sattar’s interview by Jeremy Paxman on the Newsnight programme, there is considerable nervousness in the MQM. Although Dr Sattar defended his boss valiantly, the fact is that he simply could not explain what so much cash was doing in Altaf Hussain’s office and house. His cause was not helped by Paxman’s hostile grilling: each time he said his leader was not under arrest or under trial, Paxman growled “Yet!”

A remark that undercut Dr Sattar’s credibility was his bizarre charge that the BBC report had been influenced by extremist and pro-Taliban elements. The BBC has been accused of many things over the years, but never of sympathy for the Taliban.One thing for sure: if he is to be arrested and tried for anything, Altaf Hussain would certainly prefer to be in the dock in Pakistan rather than in the UK. Back home, very few would dare to come forward and give evidence against him. Also, cases drag on and governments change; given the clout of the MQM in Karachi, it is far from certain that a conviction would result, even after years of litigation.

Trials in the UK, on the other hand, are far quicker, and Scotland Yard has already gathered a lot of evidence. Also, there is no political interference once a trial begins. Witnesses are less likely to feel threatened, and hearings are seldom postponed. Time will tell how this drama plays out, but events are moving quickly, so watch this space.