Pakistan charges exiled political leader with treason and inciting terrorism

People protesting against Altaf Hussain, leader of political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi, Pakistan, on Aug 23, 2016.
People protesting against Altaf Hussain, leader of political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi, Pakistan, on Aug 23, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

KARACHI (AFP) - Pakistani police charged the exiled leader of a major political party with treason and inciting terrorism on Tuesday (Aug 23), as his own second-in-command vowed to disown him a day after a violent protest in Karachi.

Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which rules Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, was accused with a dozen other party leaders of shouting anti-Pakistan slogans at the demonstration Monday.

MQM activists clashed with police and ransacked a private television station in the southern port city leaving at least one man dead and seven others injured.

The violence erupted soon after Hussain gave a telephone address to supporters from London in which he castigated the media for not giving due coverage of his workers.

According to a police report, seen by AFP, he chanted "down with Pakistan" and called the country a "bastion of terrorism".

For over two decades, Hussain has addressed supporters through a loudspeaker linked to his London home telephone.

Later on Tuesday, Hussain's second-in-command Farooq Sattar, who was also briefly arrested after Monday's violence, said the MQM "completely disowns" Hussain's statements, accusing him of repeatedly embarrassing the party.

"We have decided to address his mental tension, or illness, or whatever condition he is suffering from," he said of Hussain at a press conference in Karachi.

"The MQM cannot afford to suffer this damage time and time again," he said, explaining what he claimed was a party decision to take control away from Hussain.

"It is MQM Pakistan, so it should be operated from Pakistan," he added.

The MQM, run by Hussain from London - and accused of using extortion and murder to cement its grip on power - has long been blamed for ethnic violence in Karachi.

It has clashed repeatedly with the authorities who, according to rights groups, have resorted to hundreds of extra-judicial killings during a "clean-up" operation that began in 2013 in a city already plagued by violence.

Last year Pakistani police registered a case under terrorism laws against Hussain over a speech criticising the country's powerful military establishment.

Previous charges have not resulted in action or extradition requests against Hussain, who has lived in London since fleeing a military operation against his party in 1992 and is a British citizen.

Hussain remains a highly influential figure in Karachi, Pakistan's economic centre and main port, though observers believe his grip on power is gradually diminishing in his absence and his party is no longer the force it once was.

Earlier this year another party stalwart also turned on Hussain. Mustafa Kamal, a former MQM mayor of Karachi, broke away to form his own political party, taking several party leaders with him.

Hussain was arrested in June 2014 by British police on suspicion of money laundering charges, but later released on bail, leading to speculation that his once cosy ties with London - who viewed his party as a bulwark against Taleban terrorism - were fraying.

As well as the money-laundering case, British police are also probing the murder of MQM politician Imran Farooq in London in 2010.