Caller: Pay up or prepare to die!

Even extort­ionist­s negoti­ate, Karach­i’s busine­ssmen learn.

Taha Siddiqui August 22, 2011

KARACHI: I will bomb your factory. Your workers will die. Your business will be no more. But if Dawood pays, it will not happen.

He spoke casually over the phone with the factory’s manager, Ashraf. “You know business is not good, and we do not have that kind of money,” the manager replied. “How about bringing it down to a little less? Like somewhere around 50,000 rupees?”

“Do you think I am looking for charity?” retorted the caller. “I want my two million rupees. And if I don’t get paid, many will die.”

Ashraf tried again: “Okay, okay, no need to get angry,” he pleaded. And in a last-ditch attempt said, “How about taking installments?”

There was a pause at the other end. “Yes, we can do that. It can be a monthly collection. That way we can have a relationship.”

This was the beginning of their terrifying under-the-table deal. The Korangi factory had no choice. Just days earlier, its owner Dawood, who kept a record of the conversation, was ambushed in his car by men on motorcycles.

Dawood had received numerous phone calls from someone who had initially introduced himself as Kalu ‘Current’. The first one came at the factory. Current told the factory owner that he needed the “two-million-rupee donation” for the Lyari gang war. “I told him off and hung up,” recalled the businessman. The next day he received another phone call, giving him the chilling details that no private citizen wants bandied about: where he lived, his office timings, the car he used.

A scared Dawood confided in his family who then contacted the police. They involved the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC). CPLC advised Dawood’s elders to keep talking but introduce a middleman between Dawood and the extortionist. That was their manager, Ashraf, who started fielding calls from Kalu Current. The CPLC said that in their experience, many times such extortionists are not serious. And indeed, a month later, the calls stopped coming.

During that time, Dawood saw on television that Kalu Current had been killed by the police in a shoot-out. The family heaved a sigh of relief.

A few weeks later the call came again. This time he had a different name, Israr, but he still named a gang in Lyari. He demanded the same amount. 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 escaped an attack. “We did not want anything to happen to a family member over money,” says Dawood’s older cousin Asfar, who was involved in the negotiations. Now that the CPLC asked them to involve the police, the family is too spooked.

After three months of living in constant terror, Dawood’s manager negotiated and brought down the amount to half. Dawood then sent the money with two of his employees as instructed by Israr to a location in Saddar. The extortionist was in touch with the factory manager and told him to change the delivery venues a few times. Finally the men went to a petrol pump in Saddar where young men on a motorcycle took the bag.

Since 2005, according to the CPLC, there have been more than 360 FIRs for extortion - an abysmally low rate given the magnitude of the crime. “These FIRs are less than 30% of the actual extortion,” said CPLC chief Ahmed Chinoy.

They gets calls from affluent businessmen at least eight times a day, complaining of an extortion call. “Very few people want to come forward though,” he adds. “They say they can give me the number of the caller, etc, but they do not want to get involved in the investigation.”

Unfortunately, if demands are not met, a kidnapping can follow. CPLC records show that most callers identify themselves from Lyari, with a few saying they were from the Taliban and al Qaeda even. Investigator Raja Umer Khattab, whose unit is dedicated to extortion, says that while the Lyari men started the trend, now everyone is involved. “The criminals associate themselves with these names because of the terror associated with them.”

Khattab advises that the only way to stop these criminals is to cooperate with the police. “Even when we have caught them, we have not been able to convince a single witness to testify,” he added. He also laments that the Pakistan Telecom Authority and cellular networks have not helped by honouring requests to shut down mobile phone numbers used by extortionists.

Looking back, Dawood says it was good that they paid up 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. “I don’t have a choice.”


(Names have been changed)

Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd,  2011.