Pakistan violence: Arrests of Islamists in Karachi may not actually signal crackdown

After deadly Pakistan violence in Karachi, police have arrested dozens of suspected Islamist hardliners. Some analysts believe they are little more than window-dressing aimed at pacifying an increasingly angry population.

Fareed Khan/AP
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier observes the area as others search a car at a checkpoint in Karachi, Pakistan on Wednesday. Extra troops were deployed to Karachi in southern Pakistan on Wednesday after over a dozen more people were killed in violence triggered by the assassination of a leading member of the city's ruling party.

Police in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi have arrested dozens of alleged Islamist hardliners suspected in the assassination of a local political leader, according to reports.

The killing of Raza Haider, a provincial parliamentarian and member of the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, outside his mosque on Monday sparked deadly rioting that has paralyzed Pakistan’s financial hub. On Wednesday, the death toll rose to 63 as the city of 18 million people remained on almost total lockdown. In addition to the dead, dozens more have been injured.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quick to pin the blame yesterday on banned sectarian militant outfits Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), which both have a history of anti-Shia violence in the city. But some analysts believe the current wave of arrests is little more than window-dressing aimed at pacifying an increasingly angry population.

Police aren't talking

Noting that Karachi police themselves have remained tight-lipped about the nature of the arrests, Badar Alam, editor of Karachi-based news weekly the Herald, says: “They don’t have any solid evidence. They don’t have the right kind of clues. They are now nabbing anyone who comes in their sights, and will probably release the majority of them sooner or later.”

Karachi police chief Waseem Ahmed refused to comment to the Monitor in a phone conversation when asked for more details on the nature of the arrests.

Pakistan has a record of first arresting and then releasing suspected militants. This could be, in part, a result of the government's mixed dealings with militant groups. In February, for example, the law minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Rana Sanaullah, reportedly campaigned with a SSP leader in what was seen as a way to gain support for his PML-N party in the provincial by-election.

Still, Pakistan's intelligence agencies classify SSP as a terrorist organization. The SSP historically has close ties with LJ, according to Imtiaz Gul of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "Many believe that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was created as a cover for the more violent activities of the SSP and began its life as the SSP's militant arm," Mr. Gul writes in "The Most Dangerous Place." He writes, "As evidence, it is pointed out that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi activists often stay in the mosques and madrassas that are considered hubs of SSP activities. Visits by SSP leaders to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi activists in jail are no secret either."

While police suspect LJ and SSP in the killing of Raza Haider, his party MQM suspects the Awami National Party (ANP) of having a hand in the killing. The two political parties are often at loggerheads because of their ethnic divisions: ANP is a secular Pashtun party, while MQM represents Karachi’s dominant ethnic “Mohajjir” population – Urdu-speaking migrants who crossed over from India at the time of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

Historical tensions between the two political parties have bubbled over and fueled the current violence.

Violence benefits Islamist insurgents

Sharfuddin Memon, the former chairman of Karachi’s Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, says the current spate of violence suits no one but Islamist insurgents.

“Karachi generates 70 percent of Pakistan’s revenue. If you want to destabilize the whole country then the focal point should be Karachi,” he says, adding that violence between MQM and the ANP, who are both coalition partners in the provincial government, hurts both parties.

Still, he isn’t optimistic that the real culprits will be eventually tracked down. “We have to make our prosecution strong. The prosecution fails because the investigation is so weak – we don’t have the witnesses or evidence available to mount a successful prosecution.”

An editorial in Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn on Wednesday opines that “some hidden but powerful forces seem determined to ignite trouble on a wide scale and throw Karachi into a conflict reminiscent perhaps of the massacres that traumatized this city in the ’80s,” which eventually led to the euphemistically titled "Pakistan Army Operation Cleanup" between 1992 and 1994, regarded as the bloodiest period in the city’s history.

As Pakistan continues to struggle with effects of the worst flooding in 80 years and a raging Islamist insurgency highlighted by the killing of Sifwat Ghayur, chief of the Frontier Constabulary in Peshawar on Wednesday, an escalation of violence in Karachi is the last thing it needs.


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