An anti-terrorism court in Karachi has sentenced two MQM workers, Rehman Bhola and Zubair alias Charya, to death for setting fire to a garments factory in Baldia Town in 2012 which claimed the lives of 259 people.
MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui has been acquitted in the case along with Dr Sattar, Ali Hassan Qadri, and Areeb Khanum. The court ruled that there was a lack of evidence against them.
Four watchmen posted outside the factory when the fire erupted will, however, be arrested for showing negligence. They are currently out on bail.
Hammad Siddiqui, on whose orders Bhola set fire to the factory, remains absconding in the case. He is said to be outside Pakistan.
The hearing was held at ATC VII inside Karachi Central Jail on Tuesday. A total of 170 hearings were held and the verdict has been given after eight years.
I am so happy that justice has been served, said Siddiqui while speaking to the media after the verdict was announced. "The screams of the workers who were set ablaze keep me up at night," he added.
Baldia factory fire
Two-hundred-and-fifty-nine workers were burnt alive in a factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town on September 11, 2012. The factory, Ali Enterprises, is located on Hub River Road and belongs to Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his two sons, Rashid Aziz and Shahid Aziz. German discount clothing retailer KiK (Kunde ist König, which in English translates into ‘Customer is King’) was the factory’s main customer.
The verdict was reserved on September 2 after the prosecution and defence concluded their arguments in the case.
The father of Muhammad Kamran, who was among the victims of the fire, said, “We have been waiting for this verdict for eight years and hope that it will be just.”
Another victim Muhammad Jameel’s father said, “We came to know through TV that there has been a fire at the factory. When we went there, there was a huge crowd outside the factory. I got my son’s body after three days.”
Nine people affiliated with the MQM, including Rauf Siddiqui, Rehman Bhola, a former sector in-charge, and Zubair alias Charya, have been charged with setting the garment factory on fire after the factory owners refused to pay them Rs200 million as ‘protection’ money.
Bhola has been accused of throwing a chemical at the factory and setting it on fire on the instructions of the former chief of the MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee, Hammad Siddiqui, according to the report of the third JIT formed in the case. The Sindh government has made the report public.
The allegations against the MQM came to light after the 2015 testimony of an MQM worker, Muhammad Rizwan Qureshi alias Pringle. He told investigators that the Baldia factory fire was started after factory owners refused to pay extortion money to party leaders. To investigate these claims, a third JIT was formed comprising members of intelligence agencies and the police.
When the case was first reported, the Bhaila brothers were charged with murder under sections 302 (murder), 435 (mischief by fire or explosives), 436 (mischief by fire or explosives with the intention to destroy a house), 337 (causing hurt), 322 (unintentional death) and 34 (common intent) of the Pakistan Penal Code and the government officials charged with criminal negligence. They were arrested and sent to jail.
One of the factory workers who survived the fire claimed in his testimony that three of the four exits of the factory were locked when the fire erupted. The testimony was later retracted.
It was being claimed that a short circuit was the most probable cause of the fire, especially because the factory was working on overload when the fire occurred. The factory was consuming 318 KW of electricity against the 210 KW for which it had been given permission, wrotes Laurent Gayer in his 2018 article on the Baldia factory fire.
After Qureshi’s testimony, however, the trial took a new turn and the murder charges were dropped against the owners. The brothers were granted bail in February 2013 and eventually fled to Dubai and have been living there since. They recorded their statements in the case via video link.
In 2015, Muhammad Hanif, Muhammad Jabbir, Abdul Aziz Khan Yousuf Zai, and Saeeda Khatoon, all members of the Baldia Factory Fire Association, an organisation which is being run by those who lost their loved ones in the fire, travelled to Germany and filed a 30,000 Euro compensation claim for each victim against KiK. They argued that, although the retailer did not cause the fire, it shared the blame for the lack of safety measures at the factory. The court rejected the suit in 2019, saying that a civil suit was not filed within the applicable period of two years.
Bhola, however, was arrested by the Bangkok Crime Suppression Division (CSD) in December 2016 and extradited to Pakistan. He was reportedly living in a five-star hotel in Bangkok.
On February 9, 2017 KiK released $5.15 million in compensation. The amount has been transferred to an International Labor Union (ILO) account in Geneva. The textile factory and the victims’ families, however, still disagree over the responsibility of the catastrophe.