Altaf Hussain's arrest: Final nail in his political career?

"The British government seems to have finally acted on Pakistan’s complaints."
Published June 11, 2019

Muttahida Qaumi Movement founder Altaf Hussain — who went into exile in the early 1990s — was arrested in London earlier this morning.

Although it did not name Hussain in its statement, London's Metropolitan Police said it had arrested a man in his 60s "on suspicion of intentionally encouraging or assisting offences contrary to Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007," and "in connection with an investigation into a number of speeches made by an individual associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Pakistan."

Prism talked to experts about the timing and consequences of the MQM-London leader's arrest, his influence on the MQM and Karachi's politics today and a legal perspective on the arrest.

"The end of whatever is called MQM-London"

—Zahid Hussain, senior journalist

I think it was long expected and finally the British government seems to have acted on Pakistan’s complaints. After Altaf Hussain made that infamous speech in 2016, his support base in Pakistan eroded and his comments provided an excuse to the security agencies to crack down on his supporters.

His party is already divided and most of the members have already left him. So as far as his political clout is concerned, it had already diminished and I think this arrest — whether he’s convicted or not — will be the final nail in his political career.

This is the end of whatever is called MQM-London group, but it's still to be seen what happens now.

I will not say who benefits from this, because we already saw in the last elections that the MQM — whatever was left of it and its dissident group — was hardly able to win a significant number of seats. It also depends on how the MQM-Pakistan, which already separated itself from Altaf Hussain, will be able to reorganise itself.

If it can’t, then it’ll open the door for other political parties, and that’s something we saw in the general elections; out of the blue, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) won most of the seats from Karachi.

In the past, Pakistan lost some claims with the British authorities, but Altaf's arrest is certainly a signal that the British government is taking Pakistan’s complaints much more seriously now.

It’s also a sign of a changing global political environment: decreasing tolerance for money laundering and anything related to terrorism or provoking people to resort to violence.

I don’t know whether Pakistan has complained about anyone else, but there are some elements of Baloch separatist groups based in London, and that’s one of the things Pakistan has always wanted: for the United Kingdom to extradite them, or at least expel them from Britain. But let’s see whether there is any progress on that.

"Increasing cooperation between both governments"

—Asad Rahim Khan, lawyer

There is no extradition agreement between Pakistan and the United Kingdom, but Section 194 of the UK Extradition Act, 2003, provides that special arrangements may be made for certain individuals.

This means that Pakistan’s government requests a citizen’s extradition from the British soil on a case-to-case basis. The request is, in turn, evaluated by UK's home secretary, who is allowed great discretion in arriving at any decision.

That said, we are seeing increasing cooperation between both governments, as was made clear when the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding last month regarding the extradition of Pakistan’s ex-finance minister over charges of money-laundering.

This also implies that the British government’s perspective of Pakistan’s human rights situation has improved, which has often been — irony aside — a bone of contention for Britain.

Per the London Metropolitan Police, Altaf Hussain has been arrested "on suspicion of intentionally encouraging or assisting offences" under the UK's Serious Crime Act, 2007, though the statement also explicitly mentions Hussain's speech of August 2016, and that the department investigating him is the Met's Counter Terrorism Command.

What remains to be seen is whether the case will be widened during the course of investigation, as well as factor in the rest of Pakistan's many charges.

"Altaf loyalists caught between a rock and a hard place"

—Ali Arqam, Karachi-based journalist and researcher.

In the short term, I don’t see any implications for the MQM as two of its breakaway factions have either dissociated themselves from Altaf Hussain, such as the MQM-P, or have taken an anti-Altaf Hussain line, like the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP).

Altaf Hussain loyalists are caught between a rock and a hard place. Most of them have either joined the PSP to save their skins, or they keep a low profile to avoid arrests. It's unlikely that the situation will be favourable for them.

In the long run, there is disillusionment among the MQM's support base. The low voter turnout during the last elections was a win-win situation for the MQM-London and new contenders, the PTI.

For the MQM-London, the low turnout was an indicator that people have endorsed their call for boycott, while the PTI emerged as the beneficiary as it secured maximum number of seats, both at the centre and in the province. The PSP was totally rejected by voters, while the MQM-P was punished for its poor performance on the local government front.

At the moment, Altaf's arrest has strengthened the PTI's stance. The MQM-P, on the other hand, may find itself in a difficult position: either they speak out against the treatment meted to Altaf, or remain silent.

"The timing of the arrest is certainly interesting"

– Zoha Waseem, PhD, King’s College London

I don't foresee the different fragments of the MQM aggressively reacting to this — they cannot. It is also unclear at the moment whether or not a bail application for Altaf Hussain will be granted and whether the UK authorities are satisfied with the evidence that the Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency aims to present.

In the long term, the MQM groups will certainly have difficulties in getting their house in order. Structurally, they have been broken, and the new generation doesnt appear to have the same allegiance to the party as the old cadre. It's really about who is going to occupy the local political space ceded by the MQM(s). The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan may no longer be able to break vote banks and the PTI has little visibility in the city currently.

So while this arrest may not necessarily trigger chaos given that the Rangers are still operating under the framework of the Karachi operation, it might encourage relevant stakeholders to start strategising for the long run.

Altaf's influence has diminished over the past few years. This was obviously one of the major goals of the Karachi operation, but he also did himself and the MQM no favours by not listening to those around him and delivering those speeches, that too in such a heavily securitised environment. I believe at the moment his influence is limited to his loyalists who are only able to pass on his messages behind closed doors.

The timing is certainly interesting and the back-to-back series of arrests indicate a possibly coordinated effort by the state to over-police political opposition and dissent in Pakistan. The government and its patrons will claim this as another victory in their "war against corruption".

This is not to vindicate any individual who has been involved in corruption, but it strengthens this triangular relationship between anti-corruption, national security and patriotism in Pakistan which can be problematic in the long run.

Illustration by Rajaa Moini