Alleged gangster facing murder charges given safe Peoples party seat in former stronghold of Bhutto dynasty
Pakistan’s historic elections are just over a week away, but Shahjahan Baloch has still not hit the streets.
It is not that the 42-year-old official Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) candidate can’t be bothered, on account of the fact that he is already certain to win in what is one of the party’s most famous political strongholds – a Karachi slum called Lyari. Baloch’s problem is that he has been in police custody for more than a year and faces two murder charges.
According to the police and his political enemies, Baloch is a gangland kingpin directly associated with a banned gang, the People’s Amn Committee (PAC), which has supplanted the old order in a constituency formerly seen as the political backyard of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s family.
The police say Baloch’s crimes have continued even while he has been behind bars. On Tuesday he was formally charged with ordering the murder of Arshad Pappu, a leading member of a rival gang, in March. A mob reportedly made up of well-known PAC men are said to have tortured Pappu, killed him, paraded his body around Lyari and played football with his head.
Even by Pakistani standards, where politicians are routinely accused of graft and corruption, the selection of an alleged gangster facing murder charges is a startling choice for such a safe seat.
It is particularly striking in Lyari, a seat the PPP had hoped would launch the parliamentary career of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir and the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, thereby sustaining one of south Asia’s most famous political dynasties for a third generation.
But with the PPP likely to be clobbered after five tumultuous years in government, during which the country has suffered terrorist violence, a weak economy and acute energy shortages, the party has been forced to strike unsavoury deals to shore up support – even with a man sitting in Karachi’s Central Prison, a place normally associated with overcrowding and appalling conditions. “Jail is a good place if you have money or clout,” Baloch told the Guardian over soft drinks in a visiting room in the jail, his only interview of the campaign so far. “For those who don’t have that, it’s hell.”
He is likely to be released in a few months’ time, not least as witnesses have been gradually withdrawing their evidence – a common occurrence in cases involving the gangs of Karachi.
A local councillor and owner of a cable television business, he says the charges were trumped up by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a bitter rival party in Karachi. Even the city’s anti-terror prosecutor thinks the evidence against him is flimsy.
But his detractors allege that the man certain to be Lyari’s next MP is closely involved in the economy of Lyari’s criminal underworld, including gun trading and gambling dens. “He is not a murderer, but he is involved in collecting the money, the extortion and drug money, from his area,” said Nabil Gabol, the former PPP MP for the area who defected to the MQM, he says, because of “the criminals and gangs”.
Two years ago, Zardari announced that he wanted Bilawal, his 24-year-old son and the PPP’s chairman, to fight his maiden election campaign from Lyari. It would have been a neat fit given the deep personal and political history the family shares with the oldest sector of the sprawling city.
The people of Lyari gave wild support to Bilawal’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1970 when his populist rhetoric and socialist programme resonated with Lyari’s downtrodden immigrants and labourers from the nearby docks. They voted overwhelmingly for Bilawal’s mother, Benazir, in 1988 when she ran from the constituency and then for his father, Zardari, in 1990. The couple held a massive “people’s reception” in Lyari when they got married.
Bhutto opted to give birth to Bilawal in Lyari because, she claimed in her autobiography, she hoped to prove to the people that their local hospital was as good as “fancier” ones in richer neighbourhoods.
Bilawal cannot legally stand until his 25th birthday in September, but the prospect of the seat being vacated for him to stand at a byelection seems remote, given the PAC’s disdain for him.
Last year the PAC sabotaged a planned photo opportunity in a Lyari hospital by firing off weapons near the area just as he was about to leave a mansion named after him, Bilawal House. “The Amn Committee people did not want to let him enter because they wanted to show they had the power over Lyari,” said Gabol, whose study walls are still covered with photos of Benazir despite having quit the party.
Most political parties in Karachi are said to be allied to militant supporters. The PPP’s enemies have long claimed the PAC is, in effect, the armed wing of the PPP in Karachi, providing a handy source of cash and maintaining an iron grip over the voters. Even the police, it is said, cannot enter Lyari without the PAC’s permission.
But the balance of power between the PAC and the PPP has been shifting as the gang has become ever stronger and flaunted its willingness to consider joining forces with other parties. Last year it shocked the PPP high command by organising a rally to which rival parties were invited and in which the normally ubiquitous PPP posters and Bhutto photos were noticeably absent.
Gabol, the PPP representative at the time, said the episode convinced Zardari the PAC needed to be answered with force. The resulting eight-day “operation” by police in April last year turned Lyari into a war zone, with security forces and gang members trading fire with machine guns, rockets and grenades. Twenty-six people died and none of the targeted PAC leaders were apprehended.
Karachi journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha believes the PPP has become a prisoner of the PAC: “The dynamics of Karachi dictated they had to have their own militant wing, which they then became stuck with. When they tried to get rid of them it was a disaster.”
Taj Haider, the PPP’s general secretary in Sindh province, agreed the military operation was a “huge mistake”. “We dealt with a political problem with force, when we should have dealt with it through talks,” he said. “But we negotiated and we have now restored peace.”
The most important concession in the negotiations, led by Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur, was agreeing that the PAC would chose national and provincial assembly candidates for a swath of Karachi, including Lyari.
“The PPP leadership has always thought the people of Lyari are uneducated, like how a feudal lord thinks of his serfs,” said Zafar Baloch (no relation), a founding member of the PAC, who gives interviews from his bed where he is still nursing a leg broken during a gangland grenade attack on him last summer. “But this time they had to accept our choice. They had no choice. Lyari is a symbol of the PPP and if they go down in Lyari it will have an impact on the whole country.”
Indeed, without compromise the PPP would have lost one of just three seats it controls in Pakistan’s biggest city and vitally important commercial capital.
But the historic link with the Bhutto family appears to have been severed for the time being.
“[Bilawal] has no future here,” said Uzair Baloch (no relation), head of the former PAC, whose house was raided by police on Saturday. And he mocked the weak Urdu skills of a young man who is more comfortable speaking English and has been unable to campaign publicly due to Taliban death threats. “The only people acceptable to us are people from Lyari itself,” he said. “If you can’t even be among your people, what is the point of politics?”