Sinister shakedown

Fawad Ali Shah May 13, 2010

KARACHI: ‘Not even two police mobiles can protect you from our wrath’ was the threat given to shopkeepers who had protested against extortion at Nursery furniture market day earlier.

Fed up with forking over money each month, a group of angry shopkeepers blocked Shahrah-i-Faisal near Nursery on Wednesday to protest the alleged harassment and extortion by men they described as Sunni Tehreek (ST) activists. The shopkeepers burnt tyres, suspending traffic for around 45 minutes till the police and rangers officials promised them that they would act against the culprits. Barely 24 hours later, the businessmen at E-market in union council No 6 Mehmoodabad, alleged that the men they nominated in FIRs on Wednesday have threatened them with ‘serious consequences’.

For its part, however, the Sunni Tehreek has denied all allegations that the ‘extortionists’ are affiliated with their party. “The central leadership of the party talked to the president and general secretary of the association of shopkeepers and assured them that no party worker was involved in this crime,” said Shahid Ghauri, central leader of the ST, while talking to The Express Tribune on Thursday. “After they identified the culprits, we said the shopkeepers could take whatever action they want against the criminals, none of them belonged to our party.”

According to Ghauri, his party only collects “donations” in the months of Ramazan and Rabiul Awal. “We request all the shopkeepers to inform the central leadership of the ST in case someone collects money from them in the name of the party,” he said. Wednesday’s protest ended only after the Ferozabad police registered an FIR under sections 384/85/86/34 against Rehan Qadri, Faisal Qadri, Qadri Baba and eight unidentified men. “I received a call in the morning from Qadri baba, threatening me that the police cannot protect us,” alleged Irshad Ahmad, who is the chairman of the E-market Shopkeepers Association.

According to Ahmad, the activists has been extracting money from them for the last one year and despite their complaints, the authorities have done nothing to stop them. For his part, however, Ferozabad SHO Azam Baloch told The Express Tribune that this was the first time they had received such a complaint. He confirmed that the suspects were affiliated with the ST. “We have been conducting raids to arrest them since morning,” he said, before he left for another one.

The association’s Irshad Ahmed said that the shopkeepers had been giving monthly ‘bhatta’ to alleged ST workers out of fear but when the “gangsters” misbehaved with some elders on a routine collection trip this Wednesday, the shopkeepers lost their cool. “We could not fight them at that time since they had weapons,” said Muhammad Qasim, a furniture shop owner. “So we decided to protest.” The ‘extortionists’ have a complete list of shops and shopkeepers of union council No 6, Mehmoodabad, and every shopkeeper is charged according to his income. The money is collected allegedly in the name of Ahle Sunnat Khidmat Trust, ST Mehmoodabad.

The collectors issue receipts to paying shopkeepers. Each receipt is numbered and is issued in the name of an individual. The collector signs the receipt before collecting the money and also writes the amount of money received. A note at the end of the receipt says, “you allow that your money can be used in any good work”. E-market consists of more than 350 shops and the amount of extortion money collected from each shop ranges between Rs 50 to Rs10,000. About the receipts distributed among the shopkeepers as proof that the money was going to the ST coffers, the ST leader said party leaders would investigate the matter.

“We will try to find out how the receipts reached the criminals and we will take action after the investigation,” said ST central leader Shahid Ghauri. Nonetheless, the shopkeepers said they have finally decided to take a stand. “We are going to face them whatever happens,” said Jibran, a shopkeeper. “We cannot bear them any more.” According to the E-market association’s leaders, police officials have assured them of help and security. Shopkeepers from G-market were however, not feeling as secure. “Better pay them money instead of risking our lives,” said one shopkeeper on condition of anonymity. He has been paying Rs5,000 per month in extortion money.

According to him, the police would not arrest the culprits even if they were identified. He feels that the police and the extortionists have some sort of “understanding”.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 14th, 2010.