This article was first published in The Herald Annual issue of January 2014.
Altaf Hussain must have felt untouchable when the British government decided to grant him a burgundy passport in 2002, a decade after he ran away from Pakistan to seek political asylum from the “brutality” of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first government.
It is now widely speculated that Whitehall’s benevolence followed a letter Hussain wrote 12 days after 9/11 to then British prime minister Tony Blair, offering “unlimited resources” for human intelligence to monitor activities of madrasas, fundamentalists and Taliban-led organisations in Pakistan. He had also asked for Pakistan’s premier spy agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — to be disbanded, or “it will continue to produce many Osama bin Ladens and Talibans in future.”
Little did the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) head honcho know that he would himself blow his perceived impregnability about 10 years later, courtesy of his characteristic recklessness.
If 1992 was the most dangerous year in Hussain’s life, 2013 could safely be termed as catastrophic for his political pre-eminence. Damning media reports by leading world organisations, such as the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times, about Hussain and his questionable activities have seriously dented his public persona. The vehemence with which his party cadre used to defend him has also decreased to an extent. He no longer remains untouchable.
Investigations were already underway against Hussain for alleged money laundering worth millions of pounds, as well as the 2010 murder of a former ally and party convener Imran Farooq, when he attracted the wrath of thousands by making an inflammatory speech after the May election, threatening to unleash violence against his opponents.
The British police had to open dedicated lines to note down complaints and issue crime reference numbers. The situation became so serious that Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the British minister responsible for Pakistan, had to state in the House of Lords: “The Metropolitan Police Service has received an unprecedented number of complaints about the alleged comments made by Mr Altaf Hussain. The metropolitan police are now formally investigating those comments and in due course will take any appropriate action.”
Reports suggesting that British authorities have gagged Hussain after his telephonic tirade are abound in the Pakistani media. They largely remain unsubstantiated. However, Hussain’s frequency to pick up the phone and rant for hours has subsided dramatically. One reason for that could be the results of the recent election wherein governments in Islamabad and Sindh do not need the MQM as an ally. It is a unique situation for a regional party that has always pillioned with power but postured as the opposition.
Farooq’s murder case might take a while to get resolved and Hussain might not be brought in on incitement-of-violence charges, but the money laundering accusation is progressing fast, seemingly to the detriment of Hussain and many of his closest aides. Recent raids on his mansion in Mill Hill, the party’s international headquarters in Edgware, and at the Acton Town house of his 70-year-old financial wizard, have made Hussain so nervous that he felt forced to pick up the phone yet again to address his followers. This time, he accused the British police and the “western establishment” of conspiring to kill him. His accusations, it appears, have not gone well with his former “protectors”.
Sibghatullah Qadri (QC), a well known barrister of Pakistani origin, whom Hussain and his comrades routinely consult on legal matters, describes the year 2013 as increasingly difficult for Hussain.
“There is no denying the fact that trouble is at his door and he may find it hard to dispel it.” Qadri opines that Hussain has only himself to blame for his troubles. “He has thrown caution to the wind. He has said things that he should not have and now he must be prepared to face the consequences. Even murderers are not killed under the British legal system. How could he accuse the police of such a conspiracy?”
Hussain is lucky, in a sense, as some of the most damning paperwork regarding his “questionable activities” is now locked away in the family division of the London High Court. Accusations made by his former wife, Faiza Gabol, in her divorce case can’t be accessed by a third party — that is, the media. But those privy to the contents of the divorce papers, privately claim Hussain had admitted to things that could further damage his politico-social credentials even amongst his staunchest supporters.
Pakistani journalists who have reported on Hussain still find it uneasy to talk about him.
“He might be down but he is definitely not out,” says one. Others say they have done enough to divert the attention of law enforcement agencies towards him. “The ball is rolling now. We have done what we could. Now it’s the responsibility of the British authorities...” quips a Pakistani journalist based in London.
Hussain’s aides, who were recently picked up by the Metropolitan Police and then released on police bail, are due back for further interrogation in early 2014. If Hussain and company succeed in avoiding the money laundering charges, there is a strong likelihood they will face the music for serious tax evasion — a crime that could make them state guests for a few years.
Shirley Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer’s real name has been withheld on request for security reasons.