KARACHI: A few years ago, the owner of a midsize oil depot was kidnapped from Korangi Industrial Estate. After being driven around for hours, he was taken to a desolated building on the outskirts of Karachi.
Kidnappers contacted the family and demanded Rs50 million in ransom. Lengthy and painful negotiations ensued before the family managed to pay Rs6 million to secure his release.
But the businessman returned shaken. He had been kept with a few other hostages. One of them had a hand cut off and another hostage was chained to a wall, left there to die from the wounds he sustained in the lower body. Even a tough, street-smart oil trader could not shake off that sight.
It was another message to manufacturers and traders to comply or face possible death. There was no choice, but to comply. At first, compliance was reluctantly paying small amounts and then agreeing to monthly payments in extortions.
This just was not the work of a large gang or politically-backed activists. They were gangs of four to five men who operated out of areas in Korangi, Liaquatabad, New Karachi, Malir, Lyari, rural Sindh and Balochistan. From a wealthy factory owner who travelled in a Lexus in Site Industrial Estate to an equally rich trader from Jodia Bazaar on his CD-70 motorcycle – no one was spared.
“Everyone washed their hands in this Ganga,” is how Nihal Akhtar, the secretary general of the 4,000-plus-member Korangi Association of Trade and Industry (Kati), puts it.
In recent months, billboards thanking the military and Sindh Rangers for curbing crime have sprung up ubiquitously along roads.
But many of the boards have been put up by traders’ associations in a sign of defiance and warning to criminals. They have chosen a side and they want everyone to see it.
Younus Bashir was the chairman of Site Association of Industry (SAI) in 2013 when kidnappings for ransom in Karachi hit a peak of 182 cases.
“You have no idea how bad it was for us. They weren’t even threatening in any discreet way, they would just come inside the factory,” he said.
What many people don’t know is that in the months prior to the security operation in late 2013, businessmen had started to mount pressure on the government to take action.
“We were voicing our concern on every forum … we were meeting security officials almost on a daily basis,” said Bashir, who now heads the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI).
Frequently harassed by would-be extortionists from unknown mobile numbers, the businessmen in Karachi specifically called for maintaining a database of SIM owners.
“Believe it or not but PTA’s (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority) action against unregistered SIMs was due to us.”
It has almost been a year since a member of Kati was kidnapped, says its chairman Zahid Saeed.
“It’s a relief. Many of us had stopped investing capital in Karachi including myself,” he said, referring to a new unit of his pharmaceutical company which has been built in Lahore.
“You might think that big businessmen are not bothered with law and order. But my brother, my father and I – we all have gone through holdups. That’s how bad the situation was.”
But, notwithstanding the benefits, there appears to be a political fallout of the operation as Karachi’s biggest political party claims to be bearing the brunt of the boots.
“Whatever the Sindh Rangers are doing is having a positive impact on us – trade and business. They must be doing something right.”
KCCI’s Bashir also says that no major incident has come to his knowledge in the past 12 months except “for one or two short-term kidnapping where they drive you around to take money out of ATMs.”
Yet, he has a reason to worry. “Many of the criminals have gone underground. It’s a matter of time before they resurface. We need stringent laws, especially with a strong witness protection system. People are still too scared to give testimonies.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2015.
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