LAHORE: The much trumpeted 1992 operation clean-up in Sindh had actually been launched against the backdrop of the infamous ‘Major Kaleem kidnapping case’, when a serving Army major was abducted and tortured, allegedly by a group of activists belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (which was then known as the Muhajir Qaumi Movement).
While the MQM leadership has recently blamed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for the 1992 operation and asked him to apologise for the atrocities committed during his tenure, it remains a fact that the MQM high command had held at that time the military leadership responsible for the action, saying it actually wanted to avenge the honour of Major Kaleemuddin.
As a matter of fact, Major Kaleemuddin of the Field Investigation Unit (FIU) of the Army had been tasked to restore peace in the trouble-stricken Landhi area of Karachi. He was abducted on June 20, 1991, along with a few subordinates, while in civvies ñ the night when the MQM-Haqiqi led by Afaq Ahmed made an abortive attempt to take over Landhi offices of the Altaf-led MQM, called Muhajir Khel. This led to a bloody gun battle between the two MQM factions, killing many from both sides.
However, the Haqiqi group was forced to flee after the Altaf group unleashed all its fire power in the gun battle. A few hours after the abortive attempt by the Haqiqi group, Major Kaleemuddin was abducted from the Landhi area by armed activists of the MQM, who allegedly took him to a torture cell and subjected him to ‘mistreatment’. The Major Kaleemuddin kidnapping case is still described by many in the establishment as the bedrock of the subsequent military operations carried out against the MQM under the Sharif and the Bhutto governments. Altaf Hussain and several other MQM leaders and workers were subsequently accused of being involved in the kidnapping episode and named in the FIR registered on June 24, 1991. Altaf left Pakistan in December 1992.
But there are different versions of what exactly happened to Major Kaleemuddin. Some of the MQM leaders had claimed after the incident that the abductors were under the impression that MQM-Haqiqi leaders ñ Afaq Ahmed and Amir Khan - had returned to the port city at the behest of the agencies and that the major was present in Landhi to supervise the establishment-sponsored operation against them. During the court trial, many of the accused had claimed that since the major was in plain clothes, he was mistaken by them for a Haqiqi activist and subsequently roughed up. But as soon he had revealed his identity, the major was allowed to go.
However, according to the prosecution, Major Kaleemuddin, along with three other Army officers, was patrolling the Landhi area in an Army jeep when 20 armed youths took them hostage after seizing their weapons. The Army men were taken to a place called Muhajir Khel in Landhi where they were allegedly tortured and kept for seven hours and rescued when the police reached the place. The accused charged with kidnapping the Army officers and torturing them included Altaf Hussain, Saleem Shahzad, Dr Imran Farooq, Safdar Baqri, Nadeem Ayubi, Ayub Shah, Aftab Ahmed, Ismail alias Sitara, Ashraf Zaidi, Sajid Azad, Ashfaq Chief, Javed Kazmi, Haji Jalal Asghar Chacha, Rehan Zaidi and Mohammad Yousuf.
Whatever the truth might be, the then-Army high command’s keen interest in the prosecution of the accused gave an impression as if the traditional martial pride of the Khakis - that nobody gets away with bashing up an Army officer ñ was at work. Gen Asif Nawaz had been the Corps Commander Karachi at that time who got promoted as the Army Chief in August 1991, right before the start of the military operation.
A special court for suppression of terrorist activities (STA), led by Justice Rafiq Awan, began hearing of the Kaleemuddin kidnapping case in March 1993 and delivered judgment on June 9, 1994. The court had convicted Ashfaq Chief, Javed Kazmi and Haji Jalal and sentenced them to 30 years of rigorous imprisonment, besides imposing a fine of Rs 20,000 each under the Pakistan Penal Code, the Hudood Ordinance. All other accused, including Altaf Hussain, were declared absconders and sentenced to 27 years jail and a fine of Rs 30,000 each in absentia.
Almost three years later, following the 1997 general elections and the subsequent decision by Altaf Hussain to join hands with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, all the convicted MQM leaders and activists challenged afresh their conviction and sentences before the Sindh High Court. Their appeal was heard by a division bench, which found the case as one ‘of almost no legal evidence’. Relying on the provisions of the Suppression of Terrorist Activities Act, 1976, the bench upheld on trial in absentia as well as the right of the absentee accused to file an appeal. Dealing with evidence, the bench observed that the eyewitnesses’ account did not inspire confidence and the evidence of the complainant was, in particular, full of contradictions.
The bench, comprising Justice Nizam Hussain Siddiqui and Justice Abdul Hameed, noted that it is difficult to believe, a group of 15 or 20 boys could disarm four trained soldiers. Therefore, all the accused were acquitted and three convicts serving their term were ordered to be released immediately. But it is interesting to point out that after AQ Halepota, one of the counsels for the MQM leaders, concluded his arguments before the court, the then-advocate-general Sindh Shaukat Zuberi submitted that numerous omissions and contradictions had been made during the trial of Major Kaleemuddin’s kidnapping and torture case and that he would not support the convictions of the accused by the STA court. The verdict came hardly a week after the then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif had travelled to London to meet Altaf Hussain.
To recall, the MQM and the PML-N had been coalition partners at that time, before finally falling apart following the assassination of Hakim Mohammad Saeed in Karachi. Major Kaleemuddin had subsequently challenged the acquittal of the MQM leaders and activists by the Sindh High Court. But the petition was dismissed as withdrawn by the apex court on August 13, 2007, mainly due to non-prosecution, as neither the petitioner nor his counsel had turned up.