April issue 2011

By | News & Politics | Published 13 years ago

Against a backdrop of mounting crime, the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) established a crisis management cell this February to help its members secure themselves against organised gangs of extortionists and kidnappers, who have made life miserable for shopkeepers, traders, business people and industrialists in the teeming port city in recent months.

The statistics are telling. Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) data indicates a record surge in the daily crime reports at its centres — ranging from broad daylight mobile and vehicle snatching to extortion and kidnapping for ransom. Cases now average 4,500 a day, compared with 2,500 in March 2010. Additionally, the less-publicised Sindh Home Minister’s telephone complaint centre has been receiving 50-60 complaints daily on an average — the maximum number of these reporting extortion, kidnapping and police excesses.

Welcome to one of the world’s most dangerous megacities, where the roaring business of organised crime has cast a pall of gloom over commercial, business and industrial life. Groups of politically connected criminals and mafias now hold the city hostage and strike at will. In most parts of Karachi, you cannot do business or keep a shop open without paying “protection money.” Youngsters brandishing automatic weapons can descend on you in any part of Karachi — demanding your mobile phone, cash or vehicle. Kidnappers can abduct you or a family member for a few hours, weeks or even months — and payment, ranging from a few hundred thousand rupees to millions in cold, hard cash, is the only way to win freedom in most cases. And armed robberies at the workplace or at home are commonplace.

These gangs encroach upon government and private land, sell drugs and weapons and kill rivals. Often the assassinations of political activists — or even notorious gangsters — bring armed youngsters on the roads, who force shops and commercial centres to close shutters as a mark of protest.

There are some standard modus operandi: political activists-criminals knock at your door demanding donations on the pretext of buying party flags to organise celebrations for a sacred event such as Eid Milad-un-Nabi. If you refuse, there are threats, public beatings, or even a bullet. One of the worst of such cases occurred in the Sher Shah Kabari Market last October, when around a dozen shopkeepers lost their lives because they refused to pay extortion money. In recent months, a number of shopkeepers have also been murdered in hit-and-run attacks in busy commercial areas. Not surprising then that as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government continues to allow matters to spiral downwards, a climate of fear and insecurity and a general sense of hopelessness prevails among the citizens of Karachi.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

“The business environment has never been as bad as it is today,” Muhammad Saeed Shafiq, president of KCCI, told Newsline. “It is not just the country’s economic situation which is challenging. It is the poor law and order and the 24/7 insecurity that has shaken the confidence of the business community. Almost every second or third day shops and businesses are being forced to close in many parts of the city under one pretext or the other. Ongoing incidents of extortion, kidnappings and other crimes have made Karachi one of the most unsafe places for doing business.” (See interview on page 19)

Ikram Sehgal, chairman of private security firm G4S, and a leading security analyst, disclosed that leading private security companies have been innundated by requests from nervous businessmen, industrialists and professionals, who want security guards for themselves and their families.

“We simply cannot meet their demand because of the lack of trained manpower,” he said. “The criminals’ numbers have burgeoned. And now they are not just targeting the small affluent elite, but the upper-middle class as well. Only a day ago, two of my friends each got threatening calls that their son or daughter would be kidnapped if a hefty ransom amount was not paid.”

It is true that in Karachi today virtually every second or third person has a harrowing story to tell about a direct encounter with criminals, or their friends, relatives or acquaintances running out of luck. The numbers speak for themselves.

A majority of Karachi’s 110 police stations report a massive increase in the crime rate. In 2010, there was a formidable 20% jump from the previous year in reported-crime cases: 59,000 compared with around 49,500 in 2009, according to official Sindh police statistics. The rising crime tide has shown no signs of reversal in the first three months of 2011. The total number of killings in Karachi since January to the present has crossed the 200 mark. In the first 25 days of March alone, more than 150 people fell victim to targeted assassinations in the city. According to the police, around 50% of these fall into the category of political and religions or sectarian murders, while the rest were killed because of personal feuds or were routine crimes.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 242 people were killed in political strife in 2009 and 748 in 2010. The police put the total number of murders in 2009 at 801 and 1,339 in 2010. These include crimes of every nature, not just politically or religiously motivated killings.

The statistics of reported crime, though mindboggling, do not, however, reflect in entirety the state of a city where the majority of citizens live on the knife’s edge. Experts say that reported crime remains only the tip of the iceberg, as even according to conservative estimates, more than triple the number of crimes that occur remain unreported. Fear of reprisal from criminals, or the peoples’ lack of confidence in the police are not the only factors that stop people from lodging first investigation reports (FIRs). Policemen themselves discourage many victims from registering complaints in an attempt to keep the number of reported crimes low in their respective jurisdictions.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

CPLC chief Ahmed Chinoy reveals that extortion has emerged as the top crime in Karachi. “But the problem is that barely 30% of the victims of extortion or even street crime come forward to report. The rest remain silent,” he said. “Until people report crimes, the police or we will be unable to help them.” That notwithstanding, CPLC information call centres remain flooded with distress calls spiking of late to 4,500 a day on the average in recent months.

While all the major political parties in the country have a history of patronising criminals, the recent unprecedented surge in crime has been blamed largely on the newest entrant on Karachi’s political horizon — the Peoples’ Amn Committee of Lyari. Although the Amn Committee, comprising mostly known gangsters and disgruntled PPP workers, announced a closure of its offices and claimed it was disbanding following Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s March 17 announcement that the government plans to ban it, business leaders say that its activities continue. (See box: La Cosa Nostra)

A police officer acknowledged, “More than two weeks down the road since the government announced the ban on the Amn Committee, there has been no operation against gangsters. The ban remains only on paper.”

Echoing this, said a leading businessman, requesting anonymity: “Nothing has changed on the ground. All the major retail and wholesale markets located in Lyari’s vicinity remain at the mercy of gangsters, who continue to extort money and rob people. All the notorious criminals continue to roam freely.”

Some of Karachi’s oldest and busiest markets, including Jodia Bazaar, Sarafa Bazaar, the Timber Market, Bolton Market, Jamaa Cloth, Denso Hall, Shoe Market, Burns Road, and even Saddar suffer the brunt of the spiralling crime, because of their proximity with Lyari.

A senior police officer, who also asked not to be identified, said criminals from Lyari fan out in the city’s main commercial areas to carry out their activities. “But ironically, this area, one of Karachi’s oldest neighbourhoods, is not itself among the top 10 most crime-infested areas of the city.” The reason, he said, is a lack of reporting of crime, as well as the fact that Lyari’s gangsters usually strike in neighbourhoods outside their own.

However, the closure of many of Lyari’s storage houses and cottage industry is contributing to unemployment in the area. Lyari residents contend that many young men are thus forced to resort to criminal activities.

While Lyari residents feel the authorities are missing in action when it comes to readressing their grievances, Sharfuddin Memon, a former CPLC chief, who now works as a consultant on planning, policies and public relations at the Sindh Home Ministry, said that the perception of inaction against criminals is wrong. According to him, the police have arrested 89 people involved in targeted killings in recent months. “There have been raids in Lyari as well, along with other pockets of the city,” he said. But, he conceded there should be a continuity in operations and all three coalition partners — the PPP, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP) — should work together to establish the rule of law. He added, “The law and order agenda should never be mixed with other issues.”

While the politics of expediency have prevented an even-handed crackdown on law-breakers, criminals and terrorists since the early 1980s, the Karachi of 2011 has never been more unmanageable and ungovernable than it is today. Now state institutions themselves play one political group against the other and nurture the trend of criminalisation of politics, ignoring the killings and criminal activities conducted by their stooges — if not overtly or covertly supporting them.

Memon said that a key impediment in fighting crime remains the poor prosecution of criminals. “The conviction rate is less than 5%. When the conviction rate is so low and there is no fear of accountability, then of course, criminals will take advantage.”

In fact, criminals get away not just because of corruption in lower courts and poor prosecution — they escape justice because they also threaten judges, witnesses and policemen.

Memon disclosed that a landmark witness protection plan has been approved by the Sindh cabinet, which will be tabled soon in the provincial assembly. “It will help us protect witnesses, who are afraid to testify.”

Farooq Sattar, the MQM’s parliamentary leader in the National Assembly, told Newsline that his party had held two rounds of talks with President Asif Ali Zardari who assured them that criminals would be taken to task regardless of their political association. However, since then — in just the month of March alone — crime and violence has intensified in the city — and the MQM has lost nearly 35 of its members in targeted killings. Said a disgruntled Sattar, “Criminals and terrorists are striking with impunity. We have recommended that a special PPP-MQM committee on crime, headed by the chief minister, should meet daily to address Karachi’s law and order challenge.”

Sattar added, “We have to regain the confidence of traders, businessmen and investors, who have stopped putting their money in Karachi. If this situation continues, there will be a flight of capital, which to an extent has already started. This trend needs to be arrested as it will impact not just Karachi, but the overall economy of the country. We have to revive Karachi’s role as the country’s main commercial hub.”

Taj Haider, a senior PPP leader, concurred that there should be a crackdown on criminals without any discrimination, fear or favour. “The city needs to be liberated from criminals and militants — there can be no dispute on this. For this we have to work together. Our resolve is firm,” he maintained.

That may well be, but it has not translated into any concrete action. So far the government has not managed to walk the talk. As the key political players in the ruling coalition remain sceptical about one another, their ability to rise above petty party politics remains moot. And till that happens, chances of peace and prosperity in Karachi remain elusive.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.