Extortion: Pay up or die!

'If you do not pay me the money I have asked for, you should know that for me taking lives is a routine.'

Taha Siddiqui August 17, 2011

KARACHI: “I will bomb your factory. Your workers will die. Your business will remain no more. But if Dawood* pays, it will not happen,” he spoke casually over the phone with the factory manager, Ashraf*.

“You know business is not good, and we do not have that kind of money you are asking for,” the manager replied. “How about bringing it down to a little less? Like somewhere around Rs50,000.”

“Do you think I’m looking for charity? I want my Rs2 million. And if I don't get paid, many will die,” he threatened angrily again.

“Okay okay, no need to be angry. How about taking installments?” the manager asked.

“Yes we can do that. It can be a monthly collection. That way we can have a relationship,” the man replied. “Also, we can attack Dawood again. We have shot at his car once as you know. So, do not involve the police in this,” he added with seriousness in his voice.

This phone conversation which Dawood has kept a record of, happened a few days after some people on a motorbike aimed at his car and fired straight at it at least four times.

“It was dark, around early evening. I saw sudden sparks and heard gunshots. All I could think was that I was going to get kidnapped, but somehow I managed to escape that day,” Dawood was shocked that he experienced death from so close.

Dawood manages a factory in Korangi Industrial Area of Karachi, home to around 3000 industries, amongst them some leading brands of the country, and these factories employ thousands of people in the financial capital of Pakistan.

Dawood had received numerous phone calls from someone who initially had introduced himself as Kalu Current. The first one came at Dawood's factory. Current told the factory owner that he needed the money for the Lyari Gang War and he wanted a Rs2 million donation from him.

“I told him off and hung up. But he called back the next day. The second time he told me which car I had, where did I live, and my office visit timings.” Dawood, scared, confided in his family about the incident who then contacted the police.

The police involved Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) that looks after extortion cases in the city and does negotiations for kidnapping for ransom on behalf of the victim's family.

CPLC advised Dawood's elders to keep talking but introduce a middle man between Dawood and the extortionist. Their manager, Ashraf was given the task, who started answering calls from Current.

CPLC told them that many times such extortionists are not serious, and Current might give up too. It happened exactly the same way and a month or so later, the calls stopped coming. During that time, they saw on television news how Kalu Current had been killed by the police in a shootout. Dawood and his family sighed in relief but a few weeks later the call came again. This time he had a different name. He called himself Israr but associated himself still with some gang in Lyari, without giving specific details. He also demanded the same money. Once again, Dawood's family contacted the authorities who said they should ask the 'new' extortionist for time and a reduction in the amount. But everything changed when Dawood was attacked.

“We did not want anything happening to a family member over money,” says Dawood's older cousin Asfar* who was involved in negotiations with the extortionist. CPLC asked them to involve the police to catch these criminals but the family says it did not want to do so since they feared more trouble.

After three months of living in constant terror, Dawood's manager negotiated and brought down the extortionist's demand to less than half of what he had originally asked for. Dawood then sent the money on a bike with two of his employees as instructed by Israr to a location in Saddar. The extortionist was in touch at the factory with the manager and told him to change the delivery venues a few times, and finally at a petrol pump in Saddar some young men on a bike came and took the bag from the employees and left.

Since 2005, according to CPLC, there have been more than 360 FIRs registered at police stations across the city in case of extortion, with the trend rising in last two years.

“These FIRs are less than 30% of actual extortion. Majority of the people do not report it and many are actually willingly paying extortion in different business and industrial areas of Karachi because they know they have no other choice,” says Ahmed Chinoy, chief of CPLC.

Chinoy adds that he gets calls from affluent businessmen at least 7-8 times daily complaining of an extortion call. “Very few people want to come forward though. They say we can give me the number of the caller etcetera but we do not want to involve ourselves with the investigations,” he added.

The CPLC chief also said that most extortion resulted in kidnapping for ransom if the target did not comply with the demands at first. Chinoy then showed a letter he had received from a businessman just a few days ago. It was written in Urdu and addressed the victim as Seth. It was just a few lines but, those few lines were deadly enough. The last line stated: “If you do not pay me the money I have asked for, you should know that for me taking lives is a routine.” It was signed by someone named Ibn-e-Moosa. Records at CPLC show that most callers identified themselves from Lyari, while a few extortion callers said they were Taliban and al Qaeda even.

Senior Superintendent Police Raja Umer Khattab, chief of the Special Investigation Unit and working for Crime Investigation Agency in Karachi has a dedicated department to deal with extortion.

“It is not always the Lyari criminals or Jihadi's involved in extortion. Lyari gangs did start the extortion trend but now everyone is involved; whereas Jihadis are more involved with kidnapping for ransom in the city. The criminals associate themselves with these names because of the terror associated with them.”

Khattab also stated that in most areas of Karachi the public pays them ‘protection money’ without ever reporting about it. He advised the only way to stop these criminals is if those victimized cooperate with the police.

“Even when we have caught those involved, we have not been able to convince a single witness to testify,” he added.

According to Khattab, Pakistan Telecom Authority and cellular networks also need to cooperate more since their role is integral in cracking on criminals but as yet requests to shut down mobile numbers being used by extortionists have not been met. Khattab says paying these criminals just strengthens them to victimize more people and should be avoided.

Looking back, Dawood says it was good that they paid since no one got hurt. “The police may have protected us from this extortionist but who will save us from the rest of the gang?” Dawood now drives around with an armed guard all the time. The same was seen with the rest of his family members who had guards holding automatic weapons and ready to respond.

“Even though I don't like the guards accompanying me, I don't have a choice,” he concluded.

*Names have been changed due to security concerns.