What was once considered a Karachi problem has quietly crept into other parts of the country, including Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal belt, where it’s eating up already-fractured businesses.
Entrepreneurs and industrialists in Charsadda district have been receiving threats from unknown cell numbers or via letters to pay extortion money or face death. The size of the demand is usually proportionate to the value or size of the business. As yet, it seems most people who receive such demands have been silently paying them.
While a decade of militancy and insurgencies has deeply dented infrastructure and forced industrialists to relocate to Punjab and other parts of the country, it seems now extortion may force many out of business.
Refusing to pay up
Standing up against armed extortionists is not an easy task, and it becomes even more futile when the police seem either complicit or inept.
Atta Muhammad owns a local school and had been asked – the third such attempt – to pay Rs1.5 million as protection money. As a result his house was attacked thrice. In the most recent attempt, culprits lobbed hand grenades into his house. Muhammad had filed an FIR but the police were unable to provide any protection as, according to SHO Nasir Khan, “We are already short on resources; we cannot give security to every individual.”
Muhammad is not the only businessman under attack. According to the Charsadda police, the owner of a CNG station on Mardan road was asked to provide the money demanded. When he refused, unidentified criminals planted a homemade explosive close to his residence and his station. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the explosion. Police, however, did not take any action.
Another CNG station on Peshawar road was fired at when the owner refused to pay. His guard suffered injuries in the gunfire but, again, no one seems to be able to discuss if any action was taken to catch the criminals or protect the businessman.
An associate of another businessman told The Express Tribune on condition of anonymity that his friend received a phone call from the tribal region asking for Rs1.5 million. When the entrepreneur refused, he was targeted with an improvised explosive device. He also filed an FIR with the local police station, but while officials promised to investigate, their best advice was ‘be cautious in your movement.”
Up in arms
When extortionists stole another businessman’s vehicle and attacked his house on several occasions, he was enterprising enough to build a protection tower. He mans it himself during the night and has hired a guard for the day.
Muhammad, the school owner, thought of a similar solution. While, in an earlier news report he said he would keep his resolve against such threats, he also pointed out he would be forced to take up arms for “self-defence” if the police failed to arrest the culprits.
Subdivision police official Saleem Riaz Khan told The Express Tribune law enforcement agencies understand the gravity of the situation. “We have lodged FIRs against unidentified individuals and investigation is underway.” However, he was unable to share more information due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
Victims say some calls can be traced to the tribal areas as well as to Afghanistan. While many file complaints, most people quietly pay up.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2013.
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