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Pakistan police arrests 156 over ‘vandalism’ at Karachi model city; villagers say ‘land stolen’

Pegged to be three times the size of Manhattan, Bahria town in Karachi is expected to house around 1 million people once completed.

A proposed plan of Bahria town in Karachi. (Photo: Twitter/BahriaTownOffic)

From being Pakistan’s largest model city, housing posh apartments, parks, a zoo, schools, restaurants and the world’s third-largest mosque, to becoming the centre of protests for nearly a month, Bahria town in Karachi is a site of chaos and destruction.

Pegged to be three times the size of Manhattan, the city, once completed, is expected to house around 1 million people. However, protesters, mostly indigenous people living around the area, started agitating against the project, claiming it was being built on land “stolen” from them.

Videos are circulating on social media of masked men setting the entry gate on fire, then rushing in and torching cars, and vandalising shops on June 6. In the subsequent weeks, at least 156 people were arrested and charged at an anti-terrorism court.

The town has been at the centre of controversies since 2013 when the villagers alleged they have been pressured into surrendering their land to develop Bahria Town Karachi, which is owned by Pakistani billionaire Malik Riaz.

In 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court also deemed part of Bahria Town’s land occupation “illegal” and ordered an investigation, which ended after the developer offered to pay $6.5 billion as settlement for 16,896 acres of the prime suburban land. However, the developer has so far paid only $360 million, a fraction of the settlement, and has requested delaying future payments, citing its losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Pakistan newspaper Dawn.

In 2019, an investigative report by Dawn alleged Riaz was “in connivance” with Pakistani government officials and thugs to seize land. The journalist who led the investigation, Naziha Syed Ali, had called the project “the supreme betrayal by the state of its people”.

“Without the involvement of political personalities, this wouldn’t have gone forward,” she told Pakistani news outlet Centrum Media in June. She added that the police and developer were seeking to portray the protesters “as state enemies, insurgents and terrorists to invalidate their cause”.

Kazim Mahesar, a lawyer who has been fighting the case for those arrested, told Vice News that among those held is a 12-year-old boy and a man who was not even present at the site. Mahesar said the police has also registered an “open” criminal complaint against 50,000 protesters without naming anyone, a move he called a “threat strategy”.

Recently, on June 27, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in 17 cities across Pakistan in solidarity with the Karachi demonstrators, seeking compensation for those displaced and immediate release of the ones arrested.

First published on: 02-07-2021 at 08:43 IST
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