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Hanging by a thread

Updated 01 Jun, 2017 01:26pm

December 10, 1998. Jinnah International Airport, Karachi. While his family waited for his arrival from Bangkok, a young man in his late twenties was whisked away by the police.

Saulat Ali Khan, better known as Saulat Mirza, was returning to Pakistan after having stayed in Thailand for two months. The police said he was using forged travel documents. According to his sister, Mirza had to take a sudden flight back home “because something wrong [had] happened”. He had asked his family not to tell anyone of his return.

As the sole accused in the 1997 murder of Shahid Hamid, the then managing director of Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation, Mirza was later tried in a military court. The trial got delayed for some time because of changes in the charge-sheet; the original one included the name of Altaf Hussain, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) supremo, as one of the accused.

The MQM initially protested Mirza’s arrest and called him a party worker but, as the judicial proceedings went ahead, the party distanced itself from him and termed the arrest a “conspiracy”. During the trial, Mirza, too, denied links to the MQM.

When Hamid’s widow and son stated during the proceedings that they had seen Mirza speed away from the murder scene in a white car, he reportedly laughed and “looked amused”. Even though he denied involvement in the killing, the court gave him a death sentence.

The sentence had an unintended consequence — he was ready to confess. In a videotaped statement recorded at Karachi’s Central Police Office, he “voluntarily” admitted to Hamid’s murder and other assorted crimes. He also alleged that the MQM-linked militants were receiving training in India to destabilise Pakistan.

A resident of Nazimabad area in Karachi, Mirza joined the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation in 1993 while studying for a bachelor’s degree in commerce. Before long, he became involved in illegal activities, first setting a minibus on fire during a city-wide strike and later moving on to more violent activities. He committed his first murder in 1994 — a police sub-inspector called Wajid Ali Shah. Soon, Mirza had become one of “the most dreaded terrorists in the city,” responsible for the death of over 50 people.

The MQM initially protested Mirza’s arrest and called him a party worker but, as the judicial proceedings went ahead, the party distanced itself from him and termed the arrest a “conspiracy”.

The police officer who finally captured Mirza was Chaudhry Aslam who, in time, became known for his no-holds-barred approach to tackling crime. When Mirza landed in Karachi that morning, two months had passed since the killing of former Sindh Governor Hakim Said, and Karachi, under the governor’s rule, was in a state of turmoil. A military operation was under way and the MQM was facing raids, arrests, trials and extra-judicial killings.

As the military carries out another security operation in Karachi, Mirza is making news again. Hours before his execution, scheduled for March 19, 2015 at Machh Central Jail in Balochistan, he appeared on television news channels in a videotaped message. “In the name of ideology or ethnicity, we are brainwashed and used, and when we are of no use, we are discarded like tissue paper,” he said. He claimed to have had received the order to kill Hamid directly from MQM’s chief on a telephone line at the Karachi home of the senior party leader Babar Ghauri. He also accused the party leadership, including Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad, of patronising criminals and using crime for political purposes. He claimed Hussain had sidelined or even eliminated those MQM members – such as Azeem Tariq and Mustafa Kamal – who he feared could challenge his popularity.

The MQM called the video a conspiracy. “Without any proof or evidence, Saulat Mirza’s statement will not have any effect on the party,” Hussain said, speaking to a news channel from London. Mirza’s wife, however, claimed that he was in contact with the party till his arrest and had only confessed after being abandoned by the leadership.

Mirza seemed calm and resigned to his fate in the video. Yet, he ended his message with a desperate appeal to save his life to “those who make the policies in the country”.

The noose around his neck has miraculously loosened as the political plot around the MQM and its leadership thickens. The singing “caged bird” has already won two reprieves on his execution.

Saulat Mirza was hanged today. This piece originally appeared in Herald's April 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.