Karachi/Islamabad: Hours before Saulat Mirza was set to be hanged on Thursday, he appeared on about a dozen Pakistani television channels and gave a confession that has put the country’s financial capital on edge.

Mirza said that Altaf Hussain, who runs Karachi’s biggest political party, ordered him in 1997 to kill the head of the forerunner to K-Electric Ltd, one of Pakistan’s most valuable companies. Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) refuted the allegations and said Mirza aimed to win a pardon.

“Our leaders discard us like used tissue paper after their work is done," an emotional Mirza, who claimed to be a low-level MQM functionary, said in the recording. “I implore the workers of the party to try other things; politics isn’t the only thing."

The widespread broadcast of Mirza’s confession is the latest sign that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and military leaders are intent on breaking MQM’s decades-long grip on Pakistan’s biggest city. The crackdown is part of a renewed effort to reduce organized crime that has deterred investment in one of the world’s fastest growing megacities.

“This is the first time anyone is taking serious steps to take control of Karachi," said Umbreen Javaid, head of political science at Punjab University. “If Karachi is stable, then there will be peace in Pakistan."

Karachi generates about half of Pakistan’s tax revenue and is home to the nation’s stock exchange and central bank. The port and financial center is a transit point for everything from US military equipment to Afghan opium, and has recently seen Taliban fighters taking control of parts of the city.

Broader operation

Investors have pulled money from Pakistan in recent weeks despite gains in consumer spending that are lifting economic growth toward a seven-year high. Overseas investors pulled $62.5 million from the country last month, the most since July 2013, and have withdrawn another $58 million so far in March.

Hussain’s MQM won 17 of Karachi’s 20 seats in the National Assembly in 2013 general elections and is the country’s fourth-largest party. Hussain, who runs MQM from London after fleeing death threats 23 years ago, doesn’t have a personal spokesman and couldn’t be contacted.

Sharif said the moves against MQM are part of a broader operation that began in September 2013 at the request of Hussain’s party. In that time, as many as 48,000 criminals have been arrested and the number of killings has fallen in half to about three per day from 2011, Karachi police chief Ghulam Qadir Thebo told a group of businessmen on 13 March.

“The situation in Karachi has considerably improved since the start of the operation," Sharif said in a statement on Thursday, adding that kidnappings and target killings have been reduced. “There is no justification for anyone in the country to keep illegal weapons."

Recent problems

MQM’s recent problems began on 10 March, when paramilitary troops stormed its Karachi office. They seized heavy weapons and detained about 20 people, including convicted criminals. Students stayed home from school as protests erupted across the city, with people burning tires and vehicles.

Paramilitary troops on Monday accused Hussain of terrorism, triggering a police investigation. He rose to power by unifying an Urdu-speaking community that dominates the city of more than 20 million people, where billboards with his bespectacled, mustached face line the streets. He communicates regularly to supporters through video messages.

Mirza, who was convicted in 1999, had his execution delayed by 72 hours due to his health, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told the National Assembly in televised comments. Pakistani law requires inmates to be in good health when they are executed.

Pardon or delay

“This statement clearly promises Mirza a pardon or a delay in his punishment," MQM said in a statement rebutting his comments that was issued at 4:30am local time. “Mirza was made to read it out and humiliate MQM internationally so that action can be taken against it."

Syed Tahir Hussain Mashhadi, a senator with MQM, said Mirza’s statement was part of a conspiracy against the party.

“They are now targeting us because they don’t want the middle class to come forward," he said by phone, referring to other political parties. “They have a feudal mentality and that’s why their daughters or sons or relatives only have privileges to be a member of parliament."

Past actions against MQM have led to violence. Hussain’s arrest in London last year in a money laundering case prompted hundreds of his supporters to camp on Karachi’s main streets and shout “Long Live Altaf!" before his release on bail.

The renewed pressure on MQM may prompt it to split up, according to Shaikh Mutahir Ahmed, chairman of the International Relations Department at the University of Karachi.

“Such organizations never completely die," he said. “For now their political monopoly in the city has ended." Bloomberg

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