Who is Altaf Bhai?

Altaf Hussain Altaf Hussain, or Altaf Bhai as he is infamously known, used to be a Chicago cabby. But these days he means different things to different people. A British citizen, Mr Hussain leads an ethnically motivated political organisation claiming secular and progressive credentials; namely the notorious Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). Despite allegations of his party’s wholesale involvement in target killings, extortion and torture, Altaf Hussain was nevertheless granted asylum in the UK for being the MQM’s Quaid-e-Tehreek (leader of the movement). On this score, despite his own British ex-wife and children, legendary all-rounder turned politician Imran Khan – who only last year accused the MQM of murdering his Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s Zahra Shahid Hussain (unrelated to Altaf) – condemns the UK for providing sanctuary to MQM criminals.

But could it be that the MQM’s British backers have finally decided to abandon their anti-Pakistan enterprise? As is well-known, Altaf Hussain was recently arrested for money laundering and then released on bail by British police. Altaf’s arrival into politics stifled the late Benazir Bhutto’s popularity in her home province of Sindh by pitting Karachi’s Urdu speaking population against her Sindhi dominated Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Some people say that in order to break the PPP’s political monopoly in Sindh, Pakistan’s military establishment created the MQM. Others complain that the MQM, whose ideology considers Partition to be a failure, is financed by India. (So that New Delhi can take tit-for-tat revenge in Karachi for Islamabad’s support of militants in Kashmir.)

One thing is for sure. Like Bin Laden was perfect for taking the jihad to the Soviets, the MQM was perfect for redistributing the balance of political power in Karachi and, given the significance of the city, indeed all over Pakistan. Altaf Bhai was the man for the job. In his politics, he advocated equal rights for Urdu speaking Mohajirs (literally “refugees”) who had migrated to Pakistan from India upon Partition in August 1947.

Unsurprisingly, the MQM have been prolific asylum claimants because they were “persecuted” in the 1990s by present Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto. Apart from Altaf, numerous MQM leaders have been recognised as refugees in the UK. The present Governor of Sindh, Dr Ishrat-ul-Ebad Khan, is just another case in point as was Dr Imran Farooq (he was mysteriously murdered in London in September 2010: a crime which is under investigation).

However, the case law paradoxically also demonstrates that in fact the MQM is quite likely to persecute people who disagree with its political ideology.

UK Cases

In that regard, AW (sufficiency of protection) Pakistan [2011] UKUT 31 (IAC) is an interesting case about a Pashtun police officer with a problem with the MQM. The Upper Tribunal (UT) allowed AW’s appeal because if he were returned to Pakistan the MQM would kill him. AW entered the UK in a lorry through France after flying into Paris. Claiming asylum, he said that his wife and brother were killed by the MQM for his activities against the party and that his daughter lived with his mother. As a police officer, in compliance with the Home Minister’s circular, AW arrested MQM members for chalking and graffiti. Since he was in-charge of chalking in the area, the MQM chalked his house with:

He who was a traitor to the leader [i.e. Altaf] deserves to be killed!

AW claimed that his brother was killed because he tried to stop the chalking of their home. Two suspects arrested for the murder were released and a couple of MQM ministers, namely Rauf Siddiqui and Farooq Sattar, applied pressure on AW to reach a settlement – which he rejected. He claimed that his wife was killed, that too when she was 8 months pregnant, on the instructions of the two ministers. A case was also filed against him for kidnapping two MQM suspects and AW became a wanted man; the First Information Report (FIR) against him meant that if arrested, he would be returned to Karachi no matter where he went in Pakistan. Given the MQM’s intense armed network and impressive political organisation, AW could not hide from them because they had already killed 200 police officers (who stood up to them in Karachi). AW said that the MQM had also killed four of his friends in Lahore and that Karachi’s judiciary and lawyers were in its pocket because of fear that they would be killed.

At first instance, the Immigration Judge found that AW could safely be returned to Pakistan despite the corruption there and despite Amnesty International’s accusations that the MQM is involved in summary killings, torture and other abuses. He accepted as genuine the documents relating to AW’s wife and brother’s death but he weighed things up in light of the fact that the MQM, which had four ministers in the Federal Government, was credited with making important contributions towards the normalisation of Indo-Pak ties in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The Immigration Judge found “no discriminatory approach on the part of the state of Pakistan” and decided that AW would not be ill-treated upon his return despite noting that because of the criminal case against him, AW would be returned to Sindh from any other Pakistani province.

One of the argument’s raised by AW in the UT was that despite its prominence in mainstream politics, the MQM had its roots in terrorism and it was a well-known militant outfit. The UT did not really expand upon what it made of that allegation but it allowed the appeal on human rights and asylum grounds because it found that AW was unable to relocate internally because the police would return him to Karachi, where there is no escaping the MQM, to face charges for kidnapping. Indeed, even the Home Office does not quarrel with Jane‘s Sentinel Country Risk Assessments that “[t]he MQM is divided between a parliamentary wing that has gained representation in the provincial legislatures and National Assembly and a terrorist wing campaigning for greater autonomy or separatism.” (So it is clear that despite its secular ideology the MQM is comparable to something like Hamas.)

More than a decade before AW, in Shah & Islam v SSHD [1999] UKHL 20, the House of Lords held that women are a particular social group for the purposes of article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention 1951 and this is an interesting case on several fronts. Mrs Shah and Mrs Islam – women seeking asylum after forcibly being ejected from their homes in Pakistan by their husbands – maintained that they would be falsely accused of adultery if returned to Pakistan where the authorities would offer them no protection and may instead register criminal proceedings for sexual immorality against them for which the penalty might be death by flogging or stoning. Shahanna Islam got involved in a playground dispute between rival gangs and those supporting the MQM told her husband (also from the MQM) who reacted by severely beating her. Indeed, Lord Hoffman’s memorable speech underscored the special adjudicator’s characterisation of the MQM being “agents of persecution” who act with “impunity in Pakistan.”

On the other hand, not all jurisprudence depicts the MQM in a pejorative manner. For example, MN and others (Ahmadis – country conditions – risk) Pakistan CG [2012] UKUT 389 (IAC) very positively mentions the MQM by noting at that the party expelled Aamir Liaquat Hussain – a former Minister of Religious Affairs – for his anti-Ahmadi views which he aired on his popular television programme. Similarly, the MQM was unimpressed with Aamir Liaquat’s outbursts against Salman Rushdie’s knighthood and considered his views as promoting religious intolerance.

In A v SSHD (Pakistan) [2002] UKIAT 00439, noting that in asylum and human rights cases it is for an individual claimant to show that a document on which he seeks to rely can be relied on, a presidential Tribunal dismissed Tanveer Ahmed’s appeal and found that following General Musharraf’s October 1999 coup MQM members were no longer persecuted. Indeed, the present Governor of Sindh, Dr Ishrat-ul-Ebad Khan (who, after being recognised as a refugee, scandalously took thousands of pounds in benefits in the UK) is the longest serving governor of the province and nowadays the MQM has 7/100 seats in the Senate, 24/272 seats in the National Assembly and 54/130 seats in the Sindh Assembly. The party really is a major political force.

Canadian Cases

Like the UK, the reported Canadian cases present an interesting picture. In Jalil v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) 2006 FC 246, [2006] 4 FCR 471, the Federal Court allowed an application for judicial review of an immigration officer’s decision to find Iftikhar Shoaq Jalil inadmissible from Canada on grounds of his membership of the MQM because the latter’s decision had failed to define terrorism. Mosley J made it unmistakably clear that it may well be that the acts attributed to the MQM fall within Canada’s definition of terrorism but he also noted that the immigration officer’s decision failed to stand up to a somewhat probing examination.

In Baqri v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) [2002] 2 FC 85, 2001 FCT 1096, Lutfy ACJ allowed an application for judicial review of the Convention Refugee Determination Division’s decision that Baqri was excluded from consideration as a refugee under Article 1F(a) of the Refugee Convention because he was a MQM leader and the inference of complicity drawn from his admitted knowledge of violent acts committed by MQM members (despite his denial that these were the result of any plan or participation by the party hierarchy). The court held that a leadership position in the MQM alone, without advance knowledge and role in the planning of the atrocities, was an insufficient basis from which to infer Baqri’s complicity in crimes against humanity.

Like Jalil, in Ali v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2004 FC 1174, [2005] 1 FCR 485, the Federal Court allowed an application for judicial review of an immigration officer’s decision to find inadmissible from Canada on security grounds Syed Zahid Ali, a recongnised refugee who had stated on his application for permanent residence that he was a member of the MQM. Mactavish J opined that although the documentation before the officer “would support the conclusion that the MQM generally, and the MQM-H [or “Haqiqi”, a violent splinter group which subsequently mended fences with Altaf’s MQM] in particular, were engaged in acts of terrorism”, she was concerned that the documentary evidence was “much more limited” as regards MQM-A members (“A”, of course, meaning “Altaf”). Mohammed v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) 2006 FC 1310, [2007] 4 FCR 300 confirms the approach taken by the courts in Jalil and Ali, i.e. unreasonable decisions with respect to inadmissibility were being taken as regards MQM members because officials did not indicate how they understood and applied the definition of terrorism, nor did they set out the details and circumstances of the acts characterised to be terrorist acts and explain why these were in fact terrorist acts.

Moreover, in Jilani v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) 2007 FC 1354, the applicant – whose claim for refugee status was refused but who was granted a temporary resident permit – challenged a Pre-removal Risk Assessment Officer’s negative assessment. Despite noting that Jilani did suffer serious persecution in Karachi, Mosley J nonetheless held that it was suitable for Jilani to exercise an internal flight option as Karachi is a very large city. Jilani had failed to satisfy the correct legal test, i.e. that the applicant must show that he faces more than a mere possibility of risk in Pakistan.

On the other hand, in Mohiuddin v Canada 2006 FC 664, Snider J had “considerable sympathy for the Plaintiff and other members of the MQM-A” because they were rightly “frustrated” for being serially declared inadmissible to Canada. In this case, amongst other things, the MQM sought a declaration that as a matter of Canadian law it was not a terrorist organisation and also pursued damages of $50 million for defamation. However, granting Her Majesty’s (the Queen in Right of Canada (the Defendant)) motion to strike the Amended Statement of Claim filed by the Plaintiff, Snider J held that “the Plaintiff is not free to choose between a judicial review proceeding and an action in damages; he must proceed by judicial review in order to have the decision invalidated.”

Australian Cases

Like CanLII, there is a plethora of MQM related decisions on AustLII and search results list more than five hundred documents mentioning the party. Decisions from the late 1990s like N97/16015 [1998] RRTA 3574 show that judges Down Under have been alive to the fact that Mohajirs are well represented in Pakistan and dominate all walks of life. Their persecution is therefore unlikely and in N97/16015, the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) gave weight to Amnesty International’s report entitled Pakistan: Torture and deaths in custody (December 1993) which explains that:

In the period 1990 to 1992 the MQM established a state within a state with a private army of its own. Kidnapping of opponents, tortures and executions were undertaken by this organisation while everyone kept mum since MQM was helpful in keeping the PPP out. Most authorities agree that the MQM could not have operated its repressive machinery without the government authorities being aware of and conniving with it.

However, the RRT nonetheless refused the appellant a protection visa.

In 1313878 [2014] RRTA 427, where an MQM-H member claimed he would be persecuted by MQM-A because of his activism and Mohajir and Punjabi descent, the RRT did not grant a protection visa to an applicant who (owing to his involvement with MQM-H) had been shot at in the past by members of MQM-A because following the mass defection of its central leadership and members in 2011, the MQM-H is a much reduced party and so the applicant would no longer associate with it upon return to Karachi. Similarly, in pretty stark contrast to the AW case in the UK, the tribunal was satisfied any harm that he “may suffer from the MQM-A or MQM-H is localised to Karachi and in particular to the MQM controlled districts of Karachi.”

Now we do already know that Altaf Hussain was arrested for suspicion of money laundering on 3 June 2014; he was subsequently released by the Metropolitan Police on bail to a date in July pending further investigation. This recent police activity is set against raids conducted in 2012 and 2013 when police apparently seized £380,000 in cash from Altaf Hussain’s north London home. The police have not confirmed the exact sums of cash involved, but the MQM keenly defend their leader: they argue that the cash was donated by numerous party members who legally carried less than £7,000 on flights from Pakistan to the UK.


The Respect Party, headed by controversial despot loving British politician George Galloway (whose long opposition to Altaf Hussain’s activities in the UK includes the establishment of a fund to take legal action against the MQM), expressed their personal joy with Altaf Hussain’s arrest by saying:

We were very pleased to find out today that Altaf Hussain, Pakistani leader of the MQM, has been arrested in London on suspicion on money laundering. George Galloway MP has spent many years challenging the British government’s decision to allow Altaf Hussain to organise a terror campaign from a sofa in Edgware whilst granting him British citizenship.

british passportThe question of Altaf Bhai and his MQM party is something that will crop up again and again in the future.

The chilling speeches – involving hallmark threats of preparing “body bags” for his enemies/journalists and “separating” Karachi from Pakistan – he telephonically delivers to his followers worldwide from his extremely plush London home are highly inflammatory and clearly seditious.

But Altaf Hussain’s lawyers say that to prosecute him for money laundering is just another example of discrimination against Mohajirs because other Pakistani politicians, like the late Benazir Bhutto, were also involved in wholesale corruption which the British state chose to ignore: that may be so, but then again she was not a British citizen and did not talk about preparing body bags for her enemies (not openly in her speeches at least).

Finally, SSHD v Javed & Ors [2001] EWCA Civ 789 is another interesting case where Blake J (as he now is) himself represented one Zulfiqar Ali; an MQM man who feared persecution because of his refusal to co-operate with the army in their clandestine use of MQM-H and who had incorrectly been named in a FIR for murdering eight MQM workers. The case is also factually memorable because it ably captures and illustrates Pakistan’s complex political strife and religious intolerance. The case also involved Asif Javed (an Ahmadi who was expelled from school because of his faith and who was left for dead after a savage attack) and Abid Ali (a member of the notorious militant Sunni Sipa-e-Sahaba organisation who claimed that Benazir Bhutto’s government persecuted and imprisoned him for his political views). Dismissing the SSHD’s appeal, the Court of Appeal (Lord Phillips MR, Peter Gibson & Latham LJJ) held that subordinate legislation – like the Asylum (Designated Countries of Destination and Designated Safe Third Countries) Order 1996, whereby Pakistan was designated as a country where there was no serious risk of persecution – that had been approved by affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament could be subject to judicial review on the grounds of illegality, procedural impropriety or Wednesbury unreasonableness.

Anyway, Who is Altaf Bhai? Friend or foe? Secular politician or money launderer? British and Indian agent or Mohajir nationalist? Freedom fighter or terrorist?

You tell me …

About Asad Ali Khan, BA, MSc, MA, LL.B (Hons), LL.M

Senior Partner, Khan & Co, Barristers-at-Law
This entry was posted in Asylum, Karachi, Terrorism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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