By Owen Bennett-Jones
The crunch moment in the MQM cases is fast approaching. Now that the British police have questioned the main suspects in the Imran Farooq case, there are rumours of imminent arrests in the UK. But what then?
First let’s deal with the murder investigation. The issue is whether a British court would accept evidence gathered in Pakistan from suspects who have been held illegally for many years in circumstances when one of them reportedly died in custody. At the very best that seems uncertain: the British judicial system would be far more comfortable with Mohsin Ali Syed and his alleged handlers in a UK courtroom.
For all the arrests that may now happen, the MQM has always denied any involvement in the murder and without the physical presence of the main suspects in a UK court it seems unlikely that cases can proceed.
There are also question marks about the money-laundering case. While they insist on their innocence, some of those who have been arrested in relation to money laundering and their UK legal teams expected charges back in July. But that didn’t happen. Instead bail was extended to October. So what happens next? Charges? Or another bail extension?
As in the murder case, the Pakistani authorities have not been as helpful to the British as they could be and have hung on to crucial evidence. Those familiar with the UK investigations have different views as to what might now happen. Some argue that British money-laundering legislation is so broad that it should be possible to frame some charges.
Others suggest that the case outlined in the leaked letter from the UK police to Sarfraz Merchant relies on a relatively minor breach of Pakistani electoral legislation. And they wonder if that is really enough. Most Pakistanis liberals and conservatives alike do not believe that the British will move to trials. Their reasoning is borne of a deep cynicism that reflects their own experience of Pakistan’s judicial process.
The British state, they argue, clearly sees some advantage in having Altaf Hussain in London. To many it’s a bit of a mystery why the UK considers him so useful.
But the fact that he has been allowed to operate freely for over two decades and the decision to grant him a passport (due to a ‘clerical error’, let’s not forget) indicates that whatever the precise thinking, London seems to like having him around. And if that has been true in the past, the cynics argue, there is no reason to believe that basic calculation has changed. Consequently, the cynics conclude, the British police will be told to back off and charges will never come.
In fact the police in the UK are far more independent than most Pakistanis are prepared to believe. Let’s not forget that most of those who today confidently assert that there will be no trial also predicted that the police investigation would be blocked long ago. They also insisted that Altaf Hussain would never be arrested. In fact, they argued that the whole investigation was a sham.
Events, however, have consistently proven them wrong. As everyone now accepts, the MQM and British diplomats have been seriously inconvenienced by the police investigations that have forced the British Foreign Office to cut its links with the MQM. Not so long ago the MQM and Foreign Office were in regular contact. That no longer happens. The police’s independence was also demonstrated by their determination to get to the bottom of the statements by some MQM leaders that they received funding from India something India denies.
Maintaining a good relationship with Delhi is a key British diplomatic objective: the Foreign Office would have much preferred to spare their Indian counterparts the embarrassment of that claim being investigated. That preference was ignored.
But where does that leave the question of what happens in October? For all the cynics’ doubts, it will not depend on the self-interested attitudes of the British deep state. Rather, it will all depend on the quality of the evidence that can be presented in UK courts.
That’s not to say that investigations are never blocked in the UK. Recent revelations, for example, about the failure in the 1980s to investigate claims about an alleged politically-connected paedophile ring show blocking manoeuvres do happen. And in that case it seems they worked. But the block has to be put in early. Once a major police investigation gets underway, it has to run its course. There comes a time when it is too late for the establishments’ nods and winks to work.
The MQM can be forgiven for arguing that soon the UK authorities will need to make a decision about whether or not charges are going to be laid. For months now the MQM has been saying that, while it adamantly denies all the allegations being made against it, the appropriate time for it to give detailed answers would be in court.
In fact, the party has reached the point that if there are to be charges, it would prefer they came sooner rather than later. Meanwhile observers are left wondering which side is dragging its feet and why. The Pakistani cynics argue it’s the UK deep state keen to protect its diplomatic asset in London. Others wonder whether it’s the Pakistan state that, for all the rhetoric, in fact wants only to weaken the MQM, not destroy it.
In other words, it’s complicated. But then, it always was.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s News hour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.