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Pakistan assassination inflames political feud

Imran Khan's Movement for Justice party, whose growing popularity is seen as a threat to Muttahida Qaumi Movement's hold on Karachi, blames MQM for the slaying of one of its leaders.

June 22, 2013|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • The body of Movement for Justice official Zahra Shahid Hussain is transported after she was gunned down May 18 outside her home in Karachi, Pakistan.
The body of Movement for Justice official Zahra Shahid Hussain is transported… (Shahzaib Akber, European…)

KARACHI, Pakistan — To members of Imran Khan's upstart Movement for Justice party, the assassination of one of their top officials last month here in the nation's largest city sent a blunt message: Welcome to Karachi, where power, armed thugs and turf wars combine to transform politics into blood sport.

Zahra Shahid Hussain, who led the women's wing of the party in the southern province of Sindh, had just gotten out of her car in her driveway when two young men pulled up on a motorcycle, a senior Karachi police official said. Pushing her purse aside, one of the men shot her twice, once under the chin and once in the back before hopping back onto the motorcycle and speeding away.

Her party is accusing the city's leading political organization, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, of being behind the killing, a charge that MQM officials vehemently deny.

A day after the slaying, Khan said he blamed London-based MQM leader Altaf Hussain, who he said had urged his followers to attack Movement for Justice party members.

"I hold Altaf Hussain directly responsible for the murder, as he had openly threatened [Movement for Justice] workers and leaders through public broadcasts," Khan said on Twitter.

The MQM has controlled Karachi, the nation's commercial hub, for nearly three decades, but Khan's party has emerged as a formidable new opponent. Movement for Justice won only one legislative seat from Karachi in the May 11 parliamentary elections, yet it garnered 20% of the vote in the city and says MQM-engineered vote-rigging kept it from winning more seats.

"They are already worried, and they should be," Arif Alvi, a Movement for Justice leader, said about MQM. Alvi won a parliament seat from a Karachi legislative district where election officials ordered a new election because of rigging allegations. "I'm pessimistic about whether they will reform. But at least they're under pressure."

Khan's aides doubt that Hussain's killing will ever be solved in a city like Karachi, where political assassins rarely are brought to justice. Still, Movement for Justice leaders say they aren't intimidated, and will continue their push into MQM turf.

Analysts say MQM leader Hussain clearly sees Khan's party as a threat. Hussain, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Britain since 1992 when Pakistani authorities sought to arrest him on murder charges, ousted several top party leaders after the election. Observers say the moves were a reaction to Movement for Justice's strong showing in Karachi.

MQM officials acknowledge that Movement for Justice was particularly adept at appealing to young voters through social media, a tactic MQM has yet to embrace.

"What Movement for Justice did in Karachi was that they got a bigger share of new voters, young voters," said Farooq Sattar, MQM's top leader in Karachi. "If we got 35% of the new vote, they got 65%. That's where the challenge is."

MQM was founded in 1984 by the barrel-chested, black-mustachioed Hussain, who has a penchant for delivering fiery, rambling speeches via video link to throngs of followers in Karachi.

His party has its roots in the plight of the Muhajir community, Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims who encountered discrimination after migrating to Karachi. Today, however, MQM's critics contend that it maintains its grip on Karachi through a shadowy armed wing that uses violence to stifle political opposition.

Khan, a cricket legend in a country rabid about the sport, developed into a potent voice for reform over the last year after spending more than a decade as a fringe political player. His political organization was buoyed by legions of young Pakistanis voting for the first time, and though he lost national parliament elections to Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, he won enough seats in the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to form the provincial government there.

In Karachi, vote-rigging allegations against the MQM included intimidation and ballot-box stuffing. In Alvi's district, election officers never showed up to polling stations, either because they had been abducted or threatened by what Movement for Justice says were MQM workers or sympathizers.

One voter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of reprisals, said he showed up to his polling station at a Karachi school and saw MQM workers with three large bags filled with what appeared to be ballots. While one of the men stuffed the papers into a ballot box, the voter said, the other workers stood around him in an apparent attempt to hide what he was doing.

MQM officials deny that they took part in vote-rigging in Alvi's district or any other legislative district in Karachi. "I was the first person to go to the media and say there is chaos in NA-250," Sattar said, referring to the district's designation.

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