I went to see Mohammad Sarwar one March morning in 1996, a good 14 months before he became Britain’s first Muslim MP. I drove to the office of his cash and carry firm that day, quite sure he was every bit the coming man. I had no sense just how coming – or indeed how going – and little notion of what my own part would be in this Clydeside drama of a man on the make. But I knew I had to see him and seeing me changed everything for him.
I had just returned from Pakistan, where I had been investigating the case of two Glaswegian Asian girls who had been abducted, with their mother Fatima and sister Somera, by their father, Abdul Haq, when they flew to the Punjab for a holiday. Rifat Haq, who was 20, and her 13-year-old sister Nazia were apparently forced into marriage two weeks after they left Scotland. Their mother and sister were virtual prisoners in the Haq family compound in a village called Jahania. I had heard about the case through a contact who had no connection with politics: a man who told me that the girls had allegedly been beaten, drugged, forced into marriage, that their passports had been confiscated and that they were prisoners in a country they did not know as their own. Letters had been smuggled out. In one, Rifat said of her sister: ‘the last time I saw her was on 4 September, she had put on weight and looked beautiful, but said: “Rifat, please get me out.” Those words don’t get out of my head. I’m going mental here, I need to help her, but how?’
Chak 132 is a village a few hours’ drive from Multan, a city famous mostly for its heat, dust and beggars. It isn’t marked on the map but it was there that I found Rifat, at the home of Khalid Mehmood, the illiterate factory worker she had been forced to marry. Behind the mud-baked walls and through the steel door of a flat-roofed house women were gathered round a fly-plagued courtyard: here, in purdah, they had discarded their veils. Rifat Haq had been set to start a biosciences degree at one of Glasgow’s universities. Now she was helping to make flat roti bread on black pans sitting on the top of two circles of burning coals.
When they arrived at Multan airport, the Haq women were allegedly beaten and forced into a van by their father, their half-brother, Zulfiqar Ali, and some hired help. They spent the next few days in a darkened room, where they were injected with a sleeping drug known locally as nushi dia golia. They had no clean clothes or water to wash in, very little food and none of the tablets that Rifat needed for her arthritis and Somera for her bowel disorder. They were continually beaten, drugged, verbally abused and threatened with guns. On 30 June 1995, Nazia was coerced into marriage with her father’s 40-year-old nephew, Mohammed Iqbal. She was still 13 years old, which makes the match illegal under both Pakistani and Islamic law. Rifat had been married the day before. In the months that followed both of the girls tried to kill themselves.
I found Abdul Haq in his house at the end of a row of mud huts that ran parallel to a railway line. He was shirtless and his distended stomach was hanging over his sarong. ‘You cannot ask me to see my daughter,’ he said. ‘I married her eight or nine months ago to Iqbal; you must ask him to see her. You must ask her husband. She is not mine.’
When I spoke to Iqbal in his tiny motor-parts shop just across the road, he said that he was only 27 and that his wife was happy. He took me to the room where the two of them lived but would not let me see her. It was dismal: nothing other than a perfume bottle sitting on top of a concrete shelf suggested that a young girl spent her days there. Nazia, he said, was a big girl, very mature for her age – and besides, such marriages took place all the time in Pakistan.
Saddened and dissatisfied, I returned to Glasgow to tell the girls’ story. The Glasgow MP George Galloway was in Islamabad to receive an award from Benazir Bhutto’s government, and I thought he might intervene on the girls’ behalf. He told me he could not get involved because the girls lived in another MP’s constituency but suggested that I ask Sarwar if he could help. Twenty months later Galloway told me he would always regret that suggestion. On 17 December last year Sarwar was charged with electoral fraud, perverting the course of justice and breaking the law governing electoral expenses. Suspended by the Labour Party, he was still hoping to make his maiden speech earlier this month.
That March morning at the cash and carry, Sarwar told me that he knew of the case from the girls’ brother Nadeem, and when I told him what I had learnt in Pakistan, he said he would go there himself if he had to in order to secure the girls’ safe return. I contacted the editor of the BBC’s Frontline Scotland and suggested that they might want to film the journey. Within a few days Sarwar, a television crew and I had secured visas thanks to Sarwar’s contacts in the Pakistani Consul’s office in Glasgow. The girls and their mother had by now managed to escape and were being held under armed guard, thanks to Sarwar’s close friend Irfan Mahmud Khan, the deputy inspector general of the Punjab’s police force.
And this time, thanks (again) to Sarwar, we had our own armed escort when we drove through Pakistan. In Lahore we were taken to Khan’s private club, where Sarwar was introduced by Irfan as Britain’s first Muslim MP. He had told me that any Muslim would be outraged to hear of the girls’ plight, but at lunch when the subject was raised the editor of one of the country’s leading newspapers told us that it was a family matter and that we should not be interfering. Sarwar said nothing.
We found the girls under guard at the home of their uncle in the village of Bure Wala and moved them again, this time to Sarwar’s large family compound a few hours away. Dressed now in traditional tunic and shalwar, Sarwar told the girls to stay with his mother and a gang of rifle-carrying youths while we set off to confront Abdul Haq in Jahania.
The old man insisted he had done nothing wrong, that his daughters were lying. (The last thing Nazia had told me was that her half-brother had forced her to sign the marriage certificate.) He was carrying a formidable metal walking stick. Later, we discovered that he had hired Pakistan’s top advocate Latif Khosa and had lodged a writ in the High Court claiming that Sarwar was forcing his family to leave the country. ‘In this country father is marrying anytime. I have done it the right way,’ he said. ‘Law of 16 is British law.’ He denied that Nazia was 13, even when shown a copy of her birth certificate.
Sarwar had known Abdul Haq from the Glasgow mosque, but they were not by any means friends. ‘We cannot tolerate such a man,’ Sarwar told me as we were leaving Jahania. Soon, he said, we would have the girls and their mother at the British Embassy in Karachi, where they would be given new British passports.
All the time we were in Pakistan, Sarwar was being called on his mobile phone by people in Scotland – sometimes his wife, but mostly reporters. There were things about this incessant intercontinental chatter that were beginning to give me cause for concern. I had asked him not to speak to the press: this was after all my story, I had asked him to rescue the girls. In Scottish journalism we call it being a ‘terrier’, but I wanted to be the only one with the story. Sarwar promised he would not speak to anyone else but someone was supplying the media with information and there were stories in the papers almost every day. I was uneasy with some of the strange comings and goings during our stay in Pakistan. When we stopped for the night at a hotel in Faisalabad, Irfan, the Punjabi deputy chief of police, came to one of our rooms with a black bin-liner holding a bottle of Black Dog whisky and a dozen cans of Tuborg lager. His eyes were laughing in a hush-hush sort of way – this is a Muslim country after all. Irfan, who I found had also been talking to the press, is full of hush hush.
Back in Britain, I left the girls with the BBC and returned to Glasgow. I had picked up Scotland on Sunday at Heathrow and there it was: my story safe and exclusive on the front page. But the news of the girls’ arrival would not sit still. Within an hour of the group arriving at their London hotel, reporters were on the phone and the Daily Mail was staking out the lobby. The BBC producer was annoyed – there were still a few days to go before the programme went out. When he asked Sarwar how the media knew where they all were, Sarwar simply shrugged his shoulders and replied that he hadn’t the faintest idea. I certainly hadn’t.
The Muslim community in Glasgow was not pleased with Sarwar. Even at the press conference it was clear that the more traditional elements hated him for what he had done. In no time at all he was accused of engineering a publicity stunt to make himself seem more liberal in the eyes of the Labour Party as he sought its favour in his bid for selection in Govan.
Mohammad Sarwar is a sober-suited man wont to touch up what is left of his greying hair. He is educated – though not always clever – having studied at Faisalabad University, thanks to his father, a ‘hanky-tie man’ who sold his wares on the streets of Glasgow. Sarwar came over from Pakistan in 1976 at the age of 22, and married his cousin Perveen, who had grown up in Lossiemouth. From selling eggs round the city’s corner shops, Sarwar and his brother Ramzan soon developed the empire that became United Wholesale. He joined the Labour Party in 1984, and in 1992 was elected as a councillor for the affluent Pollokshields area. He was a New Labourite in a City Chambers that oozed rottenness – six councillors, including the Lord Provost, have been suspended by the Labour Party for their part in creating what is now considered a political midden.
Sarwar’s ambition went further than the pink marble interior of the Chambers: he sought nomination for a seat in Westminster and chose Govan, a place which once clanked with the sound of shipbuilding but is now more famously associated with the clink of Rab C. Nesbitt’s empty wine bottles. Unfortunately he wasn’t the only one to have his eye on the seat which had been vacated by the sitting MP. Mike Watson, the Labour MP for Glasgow Central, was about to have his seat taken away as a result of a boundary rejig: he pretty much saw Govan as his by right. The two men battled it out and soon there were allegations of dirty tricks and intimidation.
Watson won the original ballot by one vote but then it emerged that 51 ballot papers out of 540 had been ruled ineligible because the signatures on them differed from those on the Party application forms. Much of this was put down to cultural and literacy difficulties within the Asian community. Labour’s National Executive Committee agreed that mistakes had been made and a second ballot was ordered. Each blaming the other for the irregularities, Watson tried to stop the second ballot by going to the Court of Session in Edinburgh while Sarwar threatened to sue the Party.
In the middle of all this Sarwar flew to Pakistan to rescue the Haq girls. Three months later he won the rematch by 82 votes after another candidate, Margaret Curran, pulled out of the battle and gave her backing to Sarwar. Again there were allegations of dirty tricks and of racism. In July 1996, Sarwar was officially endorsed as Labour’s candidate.
In December, Abdul Haq returned to Scotland and accused Sarwar of breaking up his family. He hooked up with Peter Paton, a strange soul who was standing against Sarwar as an independent Labour candidate in Govan. Paton had been a Labour Party member, then an independent Conservative, then a fervent Mike Watson supporter: through all these guises he remained steadfast in his dislike of Sarwar. With Paton’s help, Haq lodged a £2m defamation action against Sarwar. Paton told the press that Nazia was 15 when she was married. He seemed to think that made it okay.
Last January I visited Haq at the flat for the homeless where he was now living. His family had a court order stopping him from visiting their home and his wife was divorcing him. I found him drinking tea with his son Zulfiqar Ali, Paton, Paton’s wife and Jamil Abassi, an independent Conservative candidate who was also standing against Sarwar. Haq found it difficult to get a word in edgeways. Each butting in on the other, they all advanced the absurd idea that it was Sarwar who had kidnapped the girls. Paton told me that I did not know the real story. This man, who had never been to Pakistan, insisted that he did. I found it hard, surrounded by so many lies, to hold my tongue. The next day, the Haq girls told a Glasgow sheriff that they did not wish their father to have access to them. Outside the court, Paton claimed that, once again, it was Abdul Haq who was the real victim. A few months later, they peddled the same line when their defamation action against Sarwar was thrown out of court.
This craziness was not Sarwar’s only concern. He was opposed by an intelligent, young SNP candidate, a solicitor called Nicola Sturgeon, who found it easier to shine on the soapbox than the somewhat wooden Sarwar ever could. More worrying was the discovery that Peter Paton’s computer and fax had been used not only for his own election leaflets and press releases but also for Abassi’s and those of another independent Labour candidate, Badar Islam.
Then, two weeks before the election, a mystery man called Mohan Singh appeared in Glasgow. He claimed to be working for the News of the World and was grubbing around for sleazy information on Sarwar. There was no evidence whatever that such information existed but Singh was offering large sums of money for a useful bit of malicious invention. I was intrigued. I obtained Singh’s mobile phone number and called him, pretending to be Lynn, a woman who had ‘knowledge’ of Sarwar. In the course of our conversation, Singh offered me £250,000 to reveal potentially damaging information about Sarwar. He also promised Lynn relocation and a new life ‘away from Glasgow’.
With only a few days to go before the election, I traced Singh to a housing association flat in East London. He looked dishevelled, and claimed to have been recently released from hospital after taking an overdose. He said he was clinically depressed. Looking at him, I realised he was someone I had first seen in Pakistan, where he claimed to be from the News of the World and was trying to sign up the Haq girls’ story. Wailing, he now begged me not to write about him. He said that when he had made it known in Glasgow that he wanted information on Sarwar he was contacted by a member of Abdul Haq’s side of the family; that he then met Zulfiqar Ali at a motorway service station just outside Glasgow and was brought to the city to meet Haq and Paton. They offered to help him, he said, and in return he agreed to show them some photographs which he had taken of Sarwar in Pakistan, where he happened to be holidaying when my story broke. Singh later tried to sell them pictures taken during his trip but Paton told me that they were absolutely worthless.
The election count took place at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. Among the candidates, councillors and campaigners I saw Zulfiqar Ali, who told me he was Paton’s election agent. We had a bizarre conversation in the course of which he said in the nicest way that everything I had written was a lie, that I was, in fact, working for Sarwar. This was preposterous. All I know is that those girls would not have got out of Pakistan without him. And without my interest in their extraordinary story, he might not have been in the trouble he is in now.
Sarwar’s victory was not as large as he had expected. He beat the SNP by just 2914 votes. For the first time, the Govan candidates were united – they refused to take the platform with the BNP candidate. It was not until the skinhead stereotypes had been escorted from the hall by police that Sarwar took the stage to relish his moment of victory.
His celebrations did not last long. First, Peter Paton made allegations of electoral malpractice against him. Then Glasgow’s electoral registration officer, who had already disallowed seven names on the voters’ roll, alerted the police to the disproportionately large number of names that had been added to it at the last minute.
Sarwar, his campaigners and his team of second-generation Asian advisers vociferously denied any involvement with the ‘ghost voters’ and now began asking themselves whether Sarwar had not been set up.
At home, the Haq girls told me they feel guilty about Sarwar: that he is a good man and if it weren’t for him they would still be imprisoned thousands of miles from their home. Nazia is back at school in Glasgow studying for her exams and Rifat is working in a video shop so that she can earn enough money to support the man she was forced to marry – she loves him and wants to bring him to Scotland. I tried to speak to Sarwar, in the chintz luxury of his house in Pollokshields, about everything that was going on around him. He had been advised by his lawyer not to speak to me because he was set to sue the News of the World. I asked Perveen if she thought that her husband regretted becoming involved with the Haq family. She resolutely shook her head and said no: Sarwar – who now faces the prospect of a highly publicised court case and the possible loss of his seat in Parliament – would do it again if he had to.