The Karachi ruling party 'run like the mafia' from an office block in London
· MQM accused of planning carnage which left 42 dead
· Khan calls for leader in UK to face anti-terror charges
Declan Walsh in Karachi and Matthew Taylor
June 2, 2007: Guardian
Outside may be Karachi but inside the discreetly guarded room all minds are focused on London. The clock is set to British summer time and a pair of telephones connect to an office 5,000 miles away, from where a controversial Pakistani leader runs his political empire.
Altaf Hussain leads the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) - a powerful, popular and, critics say, thuggish political force that has a vice-like grip on Karachi. At "Nine Zero", the party headquarters in a middle-class suburb, his presence looms large. A giant poster hangs over the entrance and reverential acolytes speak of "Altaf bhai", or brother. But the great leader is missing.
For the past 16 years Mr Hussain has lived in self-imposed exile in the UK, first as an asylum seeker and now as a British citizen. Based in an office block on Edgware High Street in north London he rules by phone, directing his closest lieutenants in long, late-night conversations. But in Pakistan that arrangement has become a matter of controversy - one about to land at the British government's door.
Yesterday the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan arrived in London to try to have Mr Hussain prosecuted under British anti-terror laws. Three weeks ago gunmen opened fire on a rally in support of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, triggering a day of bloodshed that left 42 people dead. Mr Khan - as well as lawyers, human rights activists and opposition parties - accuse Mr Hussain of orchestrating the carnage from his sofa in London.
"The whole thing was planned. No British citizen is allowed to sit in London and direct terrorist operations abroad. So why should Altaf Hussain?" said Mr Khan who described the MQM as "a fascist movement run by criminals".
If Pakistan has to arrest al-Qaida operatives then Britain has an obligation to pick up Mr Hussain, added Mr Khan, who plans to bring a petition to Downing Street. "There's a war on terror going on but here we have Pakistan's No 1 terrorist being given sanctuary by the British government," he said.
The MQM denies the charges, and insists it was the victim and not the perpetrator of May 12. The party says 13 of its own activists were among the dead, and last week it produced a video from May 12 showing apparent supporters of the rival Pakistan People's party firing their guns in the air. "This is a conspiracy against us. Our decision to hold a rally on May 12 may be open to criticism, but we were not involved in armed attacks," said Dr Farooq Sattar, head of the party in Pakistan.
But Mr Hussain has little to say. At the MQM's "International Secretariat" on Edgware High Street - a red brick office block opposite a supermarket - a party official said the leader was not available for comment. But he was happy to show the Guardian around the offices, which he confirmed was Mr Hussain's London headquarters, and he vowed to repel any court action by Mr Khan.
The fight is getting personal. Back in Karachi graffiti slurs against Imran Khan appeared on walls and the MQM-dominated local government has banned him from the city for one month.
The MQM was founded in 1984 by Mr Hussain, a former Chicago cab driver, and won broad support among the "mohajirs" - Muslims who fled India after partition in 1947. The party prided itself on its well-oiled machine and its secular, liberal outlook. But it was also linked to extortion, gun smuggling and South African crime networks, according to a senior police officer speaking on condition of anonymity. "That's what happens when a political party is run like the mafia," he said.
Local reporters have a rich store of-tales from the 1990s. One said she found a severed hand as a warning in her front garden, another was kidnapped from his home.
But since it entered a coalition government with President Pervez Musharraf in 2002, the party has projected a different image based on secularism, economic development and support for the "war on terror". Moderates such as the Karachi mayor, Mustafa Kamal, boast of new roads, sewage systems and billions of pounds in fresh investment. "MQM believes in every sect and religion. We are against extremism. We were the first people on the streets after 9/11," he said.
But since May 12 the party's aspirations of becoming a national force lie in shreds, and there are worrying echoes of past tactics. On Tuesday, three Karachi journalists with foreign news agencies found unmarked envelopes containing a single bullet on their car windscreens. Two of them had earlier been denounced as "anti-mohajir" by the MQM-linked Muhajir Rabita Council.
Will Mr Hussain ever come home? At Nine Zero, where beefy young men with baseball caps stand guard, there is little sign. "We do not want him to come back to Karachi; it is too dangerous here," said parliamentarian Faisal Subzwari.
But there is always hope. A few doors down Mr Hussain's deserted terraced house is waiting, protected by blastproof metal shutters. For now, though, it has just one occupant - a 24-hour telephone operator.