Karachi's Mafioso on Speed Dial & Other New Stories from Pakistan

Dear all,

Firstly, this is a little belated, but thanks for reading and subscribing to the Election Watch newsletter earlier this year. And now that the dust has settled, the issues that dominated the election – and those that lurked in the background – have exploded again, from the security situation in Karachi, to the rise of militant networks countrywide, and the threat to internet freedom in Pakistan. While I’ve been reporting for the past few months on these, am incredibly excited to be joining Beacon, a great new venture that supports journalists. I hope you’ll consider supporting my work – and you’ll also get access to the entire roster of great writers who are on board.

My first story on Beacon is on the gang violence in Lyari, one of Karachi’s oldest districts, and the death of Zafar Baloch, the political head of the area’s most powerful criminal syndicate. Here’s an excerpt, and to read the full story – and access to my future work, which will include longer reportage pieces and asides from Pakistan – do consider contributing.


Saba Imtiaz

Karachi: The Mafioso on Speed Dial

Losing contacts to violence is a part of life as a journalist covering crime in Karachi. Zafar Baloch was the political head of Karachi’s most prominent criminal syndicate but couldn’t escape death, despite heavy protection.


I get a lot of news alerts on my cell phone. Hospital staffers complaining the electricity supply has been turned off. Police officers complaining about corruption. Fifteen people dead at the end of the day, nameless, faceless victims. As the death toll from the violence in Karachi – ethnic, sectarian, political, religious, gang rivalries, you name it, this city has it – has killed thousands, I’ve ended up losing a third of the contacts in my phone book.

Last month, I was leaving a dinner and checked my phone. Zafar Baloch, the self-styled political head of Karachi’s most prominent criminal syndicate, the Peoples Amn Committee (People’s Peace Committee), had been killed. After an hour of frantic phone calls, someone finally confirmed that he was dead. The next day, there were a handful of hastily written obituaries in the newspaper. I was surprised, initially, that there were so few. After all, so many Karachi-based journalists – including myself – had covered the criminal syndicate extensively. We all knew Zafar, had had tea with Zafar, and perhaps received a veiled – or not-so-veiled threat – about our reportage. We had all, at some point, taken a foreign journalist to see Zafar and waited patiently as Zafar bemusedly answered their questions about crime in the city.

It wasn’t like I set out to have a mafia representative on my list of contacts. Getting to know Zafar Baloch wasn’t an option. It was kind of a necessity. To get into the syndicate’s turf of Lyari - one of the city’s oldest districts crammed with crumbling houses and badly planned apartment buildings – one didn’t need a gun, a disguise, a bulletproof car or a fixer. Getting into Lyari required street cred: someone from the syndicate to recognize your name...



Election Watch Update - May 10

Note: Thank you to everyone who subscribed to, recommended and sent feedback on the Election Watch. This is the last update in the series. I apologise for the sporadic updates this week as I’ve been busy with work commitments.

Election campaigning came to an end on Thursday night. Polls open countrywide at 8 am PST on Saturday and close at 5 pm PST.

The 2013 elections have been the most violent in the country’s history, with over 100 people killed in attacks preceding the polls. On Thursday, former prime minister and PPP leader Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son Ali Haider Gilani was kidnapped by gunmen who first attacked him at a corner meeting in the Gilanis’ home constituency of Multan. Yousaf Raza Gilani has appealed for calm.

Final campaign speeches were made by PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif (I have a profile of Sharif for CSM here), PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (via video from an undisclosed location), MQM’s Farooq Sattar (at a press conference), Jamaat-e-Islami’s Syed Munawar Hasan and JUI-F’s Fazlur Rehman, and PTI’s Imran Khan (via video from his hospital room).

The PPP and the ANP have announced a seat adjustment in Karachi.

The military will be deployed at selected polling stations.

Herald looks at the impact of dynasties in Pakistani politics in its latest issue. Five Rupees studies electoral trends, including voter turnouts, the kind of coalitions to expect, and the candidates fielded by the major parties.

President Asif Ali Zardari signed an ordinance that would allow overseas Pakistanis to vote – the measures can, however, only be implemented for the next elections, scheduled for 2018.

Reports that a white tiger brought to a PML-N rally has died are incorrect, its owner claims.

Karachi’s cafes are offering discounts for voters.

Election Watch Update - May 4

The ANP’s Sadiq Zaman, a candidate for NA-254 Karachi-XVI, was shot dead in the city on Friday with his son. Polling for the seat will reportedly be delayed. A profile of NA-254 is available here and here.

There have been 23 attacks on the ANP since March 30. ANP activists and election offices have received threatening letters from the TTP, warning them to stop their support for the party. The ANP has said it will not boycott the election. (I have a short comment on the violence preceding the election for Tehelka)

Pervez Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League has announced a boycott of the election. Musharraf’s nomination papers were rejected and the Peshawar High Court has barred him for life from contesting elections.

PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will not be returning to Pakistan for the election.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q thinks PTI will win the popular vote, and believes his party – which has had nearly all of its influential candidates defect in the run-up to the elections – will still be a ‘kingmaker’ in coalition talks.

Dawn looks at the benefit PTI will have from ‘electables’ in the southern Punjab region.

In an address to the nation on Friday, caretaker prime minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso said that elections would be held on time and that there would be no delay or extension of the caretaker government’s tenure, as many have speculated.

The BNP-Mengal announced its manifesto, promising the end of ‘death squads’, targeted killings and the ‘kill and dump’ policy in use across Balochistan.

The Lahore High Court has ordered the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to stop the broadcast of a PPP attack ad that features an alleged telephone conversation between Shahbaz Sharif and then judge-Malik Qayyum, where Sharif asks for Qayyum for a favor. Political parties have spent millions of rupees on television ads.

Dawn profiles Azam Swati, a former JUI-F senator who quit the party in 2011 and joined PTI.

Constituency profiles:

NA-48 Islamabad-I and NA-48 Islamabad-II: A pitched battle is expected in several areas given there are pockets of votes that will go to parties like the JI.

NA-122 Lahore-V: Incumbent Ayaz Sadiq (PML-N) goes head to head with PTI chairperson Imran Khan.

NA-132 Sheikhupura-II: PML-N incumbent Rana Tanveer Hussain looks set to win his seat again.

NA-237 Thatta-I and NA-238 Thatta-II: While the influential Sheerazi family may win NA-238, NA-237 looks set to be an uphill battle because of the PPP and PML-N candidates – Owais Muzaffar and Marvi Memon.

NA-253 Karachi-XV: The Shia vote bank may split this year because the MWM has also fielded a candidate.

NA-265 Old Sibi: The Bugtis cannot enter their old constituency while IDPs have been protesting about not being free to vote.

Election Watch Update - May 1

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has said that elections won’t be delayed – and that the army was working to strengthen democracy.

The Peshawar High Court has barred Pervez Musharraf from ever contesting elections in Pakistan.

Abdul Fatah, an independent candidate for the Balochistan Assembly, was shot dead in Jhal Magsi. The convoy of NPP’s National Assembly candidate Ibrahim Jatoi was attacked in Shikarpur.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the government has asked candidates to install jammers in their cars against the threat of IED attacks.

Representatives of the PPP, MQM and ANP – including former interior minister Rehman Malik – have called on the PML-N and the PTI to disclose their ‘agreement with the TTP’.

Despite threats, ANP’s female membership base in Lakki Marwat is campaigning for the party.

The PML-N is reportedly using PTI candidate Abrar-ul-Haq’s career as a popular Punjabi singer against him in their election campaign messaging. Haq is contesting the NA-117 seat from Narowal.

Dawn profiles Faryal Talpur – President Asif Ali Zardari’s sister and a candidate for NA-207 Larkana-IV – and her role in the PPP.

 The Express Tribune looks at the NA-51 and NA-54 constituencies in Rawalpindi.

In Faisalabad, the rental car business has kicked off with the election campaign, with candidates preferring high-end cars to use while on the road.

Dawn looks at the impact of calls for a southern Punjab province in the context of the election and the PPP, which supported creating the province but hasn’t made it a campaign issue.

Election Watch Update - April 27

An ANP office in Karachi was attacked on Friday and a JUI-F leader’s convoy was targeted in Bolan. The PPP’s has scaled down its election campaign over security threats. According to party leader Amin Fahim, the PPP will be using ‘social media, SMS texts, personal contacts and very limited corner meetings’.

Candidates for the elections in Waziristan are campaigning in Rawalpindi and Islamabad to constituents now based in the cities for fear of being attacked. The TTP has decided not to attack independent candidate Adnan Wazir after he clarified that he was not an ANP candidate. His rally was attacked by the TTP in FR Bannu last month. In Swabi, the ANP may gain more voters sympathetic to the party that has been attacked repeatedly over the past five years.

People found guilty of preventing women from voting in the elections will be imprisoned for up to five years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to the caretaker government in the province.

The number of polling stations that are a security risk and declared ‘sensitive’ in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas has quadrupled since the 2008 elections.

The ECP has reiterated to candidates and political parties that personal attacks on their opponents are a violation of the election code of conduct. While President Asif Ali Zardari had reportedly asked the ECP to bar candidates from targeting him – PTI head Imran Khan called the president a ‘jinn’ and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif has criticized him in campaign speeches - the PPP has launched an election ad targeting former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N).

The News looks at the NA-I Peshawar-I constituency, being contested by Ghulam Ahmed Bilour (ANP) and Imran Khan (PTI).

The Express Tribune profiles the Haripur constituencies, also being contested by members of the late former army chief Ayub Khan’s family.

Dawn looks at Okara, the stronghold of the Wattoo family, and the antagonism for the PPP in the district.

Dawn profiles PML-N leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan – the former leader of the opposition in the National Assembly – and his role in the party’s nomination process for candidates.

Dawn analyses that Faisal Saleh Hayat (Independent, formerly of the PPP and the PML-Q) may rejoin the PPP if the party needs candidates to form a coalition after the May 11 elections.

PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, who spent his time in exile in Saudi Arabia, met with ambassadors from the Gulf in Islamabad on Friday.

Pir Pagara – the head of the PML-F and the spiritual leader of the Hurs in Sindh – has consolidated his influence in the province since he succeeded his late father in 2012. On Friday, he met with Peoples Muslim League head and former Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim (formerly of the PML-Q and the PML-Q likeminded) to discuss seat adjustments.

Election Watch Update - April 26

Election-related violence continued in Pakistan on Thursday, with attacks in Nushki and Karachi. The TTP has reportedly issued pamphlets, warning people against participating in the election. Social taboos and threats from militants will disenfranchise women in this year’s election as well.

Dawn looks at the situation in Khanewal, where candidates from the PPP, PML-N and the ASWJ are all campaigning on the strength of a Deobandi platform. There are also splits within the ASWJ as the Malik Ishaq-led group has fielded its own candidates.

The PPP has forged a reconciliation of the Mahar and Dharejo families in Ghotki, after the PPP’s Ghotki head Sardar Ahmed Ali Khan Pitafi decided to support Khalid Ahmed Lund, an independent candidate, over the PPP’s Mahar nominee. The PPP has also decided to suspend members who are contesting against party nominees in this year’s election. Nineteen candidates are contesting NA-200 Ghotki-I. The seat was last held by Mian Abdul Haque – or more popularly known as Mian Mithu – who won on a PPP ticket but was not given one this year for his alleged role in the forced conversions of Hindu girls to Islam in the district. He is contesting as an independent this year.

The ANP has objected to the JI using mosques to campaign.

The Pakistan Ulema Council says voting is a responsibility mandated by Islamic Shariah.

Dawn profiles the Sargodha constituencies and Peshawar’s NA-I seat. The Friday Times looks at the impact of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party in Balochistan.

Election Watch Update - April 25

Over 16,000 candidates are participating in the May 11 elections for National Assembly and provincial assembly seats. Over 7,000 people withdrew from the race, largely due to the fact that they had filed papers when the political parties had not announced their final candidates or seat adjustment deals.

The caretaker government has told the Supreme Court that it will take 18 months to test voting software for overseas Pakistanis, which is why it is not possible for Pakistanis based abroad to vote in the May 11 election.

President Asif Ali Zardari has asked the ECP to stop politicians from criticizing hi

m excessively in their campaign speeches, given that the president is not ‘technically’ the head of a political party.

President Zardari has reportedly intervened to end a dispute between the Magsi and Chandio clans ahead of the elections.

The MQM will be running a door-to-door campaign to inform voters about ‘injustices’ to the party.

Dawn profiles the Faisalabad contestants and the number of candidates who have defected from the parties they ran for in 2008 or 2002.

The influence of Nawab Salahuddin Abbasi of Bahawalpur has waned in this election, but supporters are optimistic that his alliance with the PTI will work out.

The Express Tribune profiles the Orakzai constituency, where the Shia vote will be split between 18 candidates instead of one, as was usual practice.

 In Hyderabad, the alliance of Sindh nationalist parties as well as the PML-N may be an unpredictable factor. However, the alliance is still trying to decide on candidates while the PPP and MQM retain their support base.

The PML-N faces a tough fight in the Hazara division.