In the recent past, Salman made a pact with a suspicious agent in Iran and stole over 5,600 passports. Today he is facing up to seven years in prison for the crime. He told the police as much after they arrested him for swiping the passports from the Travel Agents Association of Pakistan (Taap) office in Karachi back in June.
The police announced the arrests of five suspects – Salman, his younger brother Tahir, and his three friends, Sheheryar, Wahaj and Anas – on Friday, along with the recovery of 17 bags containing the 5,634 passports.
The passports, which include 25 Umrah travellers’ foreign passports, were stolen from the office at the defunct Metropole hotel in Saddar. The theft occurred between June 5 and June 8 as the Taap office was closed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Agents of Umrah travel agencies in Karachi had submitted the passports to Taap. They were to be sent to the Saudi Embassy for visa processing, but were stolen before they could be dispatched.
The Artillery Maidan police registered FIR No. 92/11 against unidentified people on behalf of the office manager, Saleem Ahmed. The investigation was later transferred to the Special Investigation Unit and Federal Investigation Agency. However, it was the East zone Investigation-II police who made the arrests and recovered the passports.
“My efforts and those of my team led to this success,” East Zone Investigation II SSP Niaz Khosa told The Express Tribune. “I won’t tell you how we got to them because revealing information like that only helps people who are involved in cases like this.” He said that the arrests could be chalked up to his department’s intelligence network.
The police say that the suspects were arrested during separate raids in Sohrab Goth.
The arrested men lived in the same area, al Asif Square and 27-year-old Salman was just recently married. He used to work at Taap but left about a year ago in favour of the Saudi Culture Centre where his brother Tahir was already employed. Tahir used to run a travel agency from 2006 to 2010 and had been working at the Centre for a year before the robbery.
SSP Khosa said that Salman was the mastermind behind the heist. He was the prime suspect during the investigation. It appears that he convinced his brother and friends to join him. He was living in a different part of the city so when the police arrested Tahir and the rest, he was not caught. They apprehended him later and found the missing passports as well.
“I am happy to announce that we not only arrested the culprits but recovered all the passports as well,” he said. “None of the arrested have a criminal record but it appears they did all of this out of greed.”
The officer said that initial interrogations revealed that Salman had recently visited Iran where he met with an unidentified man who brainwashed him. “I went to Iran for ziarat (pilgrimage) when I ran into that man. I talked to him for a while, when I told him about my job, he told me, ‘You are a very useful man’,” Salman told the investigators. “He told me that if I got him the passports he would pay me Rs200,000 per passport. This convinced me to go through with it, and I in turn managed to convince Tahir and my friends.”
The officer said that Salman and the unidentified man were in the process of striking a deal when he was arrested. Salman demanded Rs80 million for all the passports while the man agreed to give him Rs18 million. Salman also revealed that they met in Quetta to settle the deal but it was not finalised.
Moving on to the robbery, Salman told investigators that he sent Sheheryar and Anas to Taap to steal the passports. The door was closed so they broke in through the window. “We knew that the passports were there because we have all the records,” he explained. “It wasn’t safe for me to go because the watchman recognises me, so I sent Sheheryar and Anas. When the Taap office is closed, so are the cameras and the building watchman is also usually not that alert at night so we chose to act at night.”
Investigators did not disclose the man who they suspect was the one who approached Salman to steal the passports because the investigation is under way. SSP Khosa said that the passports were to be used for human trafficking and a joint interrogation team was being put together to look into the bigger motive behind the theft and to apprehend the man in Iran.
“We believe that the man who made Salman steal the passports is a big agent who may even have been intending to pass these passports on to foreign terrorists,” the officer explained. “It is also possible that these boys unknowingly stumbled into helping a huge terrorist plot while trying to get their hands on a little money.”
The suspects are in police custody and would be produced before court today (Saturday) for physical remand. “We are going to try to have them put away for seven years for attempted robbery,” said the officer. “For now, the most important thing is getting to the guy who coerced Salman into the robbery.”
Meanwhile, the people whose passports were recovered were ecstatic.
“We are very glad that we will be able to go for Umrah now,” said Imran, one of the passport owners. “So many days had passed that we had begun to give up hope.”
Imran had meant to go to Makkah with his family when all their passports were stolen. “Thank God we don’t have to make new passports and begin the entire process again,” he said. “Once the law and order situation settles down a bit, we will inquire about the next steps in the procedure.”
The Taap chairman, Yahya Polani, was unavailable for comment as he is at Umrah himself.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2011.