Pakistani Leader Altaf Hussain Acquitted in U.K. Terrorism Case

Altaf Hussain, a once feared politician who controlled Karachi for decades from his home in north London, was acquitted by a jury of encouraging acts of terrorism after making fiery speeches to followers in Pakistan’s turbulent financial capital.

The verdict was reached by a majority decision in London on Tuesday. Prosecution lawyers played jurors guttural over-the-phone broadcasts made by 68-year-old Hussain on Aug. 22, 2016, where he was accused of urging a crowd of hunger strikers in Karachi to ransack media houses and storm the local headquarters of a military unit.

Two TV studios were soon after attacked and taken off air, while police officers were assaulted and injured, prosecutors said. One person was killed in the violence.

But Rupert Bowers, a defense lawyer, sought to cast doubt over whether Hussain meant for his words to be taken literally that day. He urged jurors to judge the case “by the yardstick of Pakistan” and its “endemic violence.”

“Mr. Hussain did nothing other than he has always done in trying to represent an oppressed part of the population while organizing what is axiomatically a peaceful protest by way of hunger strike,” Bowers said in his summing up. “If violence ensued in the latter part of that day he’s regretful of that — he’s not a terrorist.”

Weakened Hold
While Hussain has been acquitted, his hold on Karachi and his estranged party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, has been weakened for years and it is doubtful if he can ever make a serious political come back. He is also being pursued in London’s courts by the Pakistan-based leadership of the MQM, which broke away from Hussain after his 2016 speeches and is now attempting to seize control of the party’s U.K. properties in civil litigation.

A former student leader, Hussain founded the secular organization in 1984. It sought to galvanize and fight for the increasingly marginalized Urdu-speaking Mohajir, or refugee, community that migrated to Karachi during the chaotic and bloody partition of British India in 1947. The MQM was once the third-largest political party in Pakistan and found its support solicited by a series of military and civilian rulers.

The movement’s rise intensified a fearsome contest for power in Pakistan’s largest city, which descended into periods of urban warfare and frequent clashes between rival ethnic groups, political parties and the army. Hussain fled to the U.K. capital in 1992 where he was granted asylum and eventually British citizenship after claiming he was the target of a botched assassination attempt.

Despite living about 4,000 miles away from Karachi, Hussain managed to maintain his grip on the party and fostered a formidable cult-of-personality. Through phoned-in-commands he was able to shut down the city with violently-enforced strikes that would cause considerable economic damage and send the country’s stock market plunging. Pakistan’s government repeatedly complained to British authorities that Hussain was directing the MQM’s activities from the comfort and safety of London.

Fierce Reaction
In 2019, Hussain was arrested and the court heard evidence from phone call recording devices seized from the MQM’s London headquarters in Edgware, as well as video footage from Pakistan that showed the disorder following his speeches.

Hussain’s comments prompted a fierce reaction from the military. Many of the MQM’s leaders in Pakistan were detained and party properties sealed. Hussain apologized the next day, but under intense pressure the MQM’s Pakistan-based political wing publicly renounced his leadership, largely cutting Hussain’s cord to the city. The MQM’s Pakistan leaders remain crucial allies to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.

While Hussain decided not to take to the witness stand, he argued outside of court that he was the victim of a military-lead plot. In 2015 a high court in Pakistan had banned news organizations from broadcasting his image and often marathon-length diatribes.

Over the decades the MQM has been the target of crackdowns instigated by the armed forces, which have directly governed Pakistan for much of its history and are still largely seen as the main power behind the country’s democratic veil.

A series of U.K. investigations against Hussain and the party were first launched after a MQM founding member, Imran Farooq, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death 12 years ago outside his home in north London. In 2020 a court in Islamabad, hearing evidence provided by Scotland Yard, convicted three MQM members of his murder and said Hussain had ordered his killing. Hussain has denied any involvement in Farooq’s death and wasn’t charged for the crime in Britain.

Farooq’s murder also set off police probes into alleged MQM money laundering, as well as accusations that the party was funded and supported by India, the arch-nemesis of Pakistan. In raids on Hussain’s home and the party’s London properties officers found hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. Hussain and the MQM repeatedly denied the allegations and in 2016 the investigation into the party’s finances was dropped.