KARACHI: The powerful exiled leader of Pakistan’s MQM party, Altaf Hussain, was arrested in London yesterday on suspicion of money-laundering as thousands of people in his home city of Karachi staged a sit-in calling for his release.
Hussain’s arrest, confirmed by Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) officials in London, has sparked fears of a major backlash there. British police said only that a 60-year-old man had been detained at a residential address in northwest London on suspicion of money-laundering, and that officers were searching the building.
Reports earlier suggested that Hussain, 60, was being investigated for money laundering to the tune of nearly £400,000.
A spokesman for the MQM headquarters in London confirmed that Hussain was arrested at his home in the morning as part of an ongoing investigation and said he was happy to help police with their inquiries.
“While these inquiries are taking place, the party leadership calls for calm from our millions of party members and supporters in Pakistan and across the world,” spokesman Nadeem Nusrat said in a statement. “The party is prepared to assist the British police with all of their inquiries as neither Altaf Hussain nor the party have anything to hide.”
British officials said they had temporarily closed their deputy high commission in Karachi, as police strengthened security in the city’s diplomatic enclave. “We have tightened the security of the consulates, especially of the British,” said city police chief Ghulam Qadir Thebo.
MQM leader Farooq Sattar as saying in Karachi that Hussain has not committed any crime and the MQM will opt for legal battle.
MQM announced a major protest and said they would block the city’s main M A Jinnah thoroughfare until Hussain’s release. “Everyone should come to endorse his or her love and solidarity to Altaf Hussain,” said Haider Abbas Rizvi, a senior party official.
Around 4,000 people had reached the Numaish Chowrangi intersection by 8pm local time, with many more expected to join them.
Panic had earlier gripped the sprawling metropolis of 20 million soon after local television broadcast the news. Tension was high and residents said the city came to a standstill due to massive traffic jams as people rushed home for fear of violence.
Angry protesters torched four vehicles and at least eight passenger buses in different parts of Karachi, according to officials. Pakistani television showed images of a car set on fire and sporadic gunfire could be heard in the city but no major acts of violence were immediately reported.
“All shops and markets are shut. Even small cigarette shops are closed,” Mohammad Moosa, a resident of Karachi said. “Petrol station operators have also closed down, fearing violence.”
Many residents rushed to stock up on groceries in anticipation of a prolonged shutdown, while office workers left for home early, clogging up roads. “We don’t know for how long the shops will remain closed and I want to store as much groceries as I could,” Razia Begum, 45, said as she jostled for space in a packed shop. The Karachi Stock Exchange plunged three percent on the news, from 29,784 points to 29,009 points, while train services were halted.
For over two decades, Hussain has wielded effective control over Karachi from his London suburb, addressing supporters through a loudspeaker linked to his home telephone.
Unlike Pakistan’s other major political leaders who are largely drawn from the country’s elite, Hussain was born to a lower middle-class family that migrated from Agra in India during partition in 1947. He founded the MQM party in 1984 to safeguard the rights of the city’s Urdu-speaking Mohajir community which fled from India. Many of them revere him for bringing them relative prosperity after the turbulent ethnic clashes of the 1980s.
But critics accuse the party of resorting to extortion and using gang violence to maintain its grip on power. Hussain left Pakistan for Britain in 1992 after a military operation to end ethnic unrest in Karachi, gaining British citizenship in 2002. His residence in London was raided on suspicion of money-laundering in 2012 and 2013 by British police.