Karachi factory fire that killed hundreds was arson: report

Nov 30, -0001

KARACHI: The infernal blaze that gutted Ali Enterprises, a garment factory in Baldia Town, was not an accident but arson, Samaa reported.

In a shocking development, a suspect, who is currently in the custody of paramilitary force, Rangers, has confessed to perpetrating incendiarism that killed near 300 factory workers on the night of September 11, 2012.

An investigative report prepared by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) let these dumfounding cats out of the bag here on Friday.

According to the dossier, which was handed over to the court by the Rangers, Rizwan Qureshi set the factory on fire by using a highly inflammable chemical after the owners refused to submit to his extortive demands.

Reportedly, Qureshi and his accomplices had demanded Rs200 million as extortion, which the proprietors of the unit that used to produce export quality apparel had categorically refused to cough up.

There is more to it than what you have so far read between the lines.

Surprisingly, the the self-accused arsonist, allegedly an in-service government servant, has also claimed that a former minister had had the bail of the factory owners cancelled back in the day, while a high-ranking official had his palm greased with no less than Rs150 million to close the case.

Qureshi, who is said to have some mighty politicos form a mainstream party with a clout on the city watching his back, also admitted to organized election rigging in the May 11, 2013 vote.

The report says he along with his comrades-in-crime cast around Rs30,000 bogus ballots in National Assembly and Provincial Assembly (Sindh) constituencies, NA-251 and PS-114, to help a certain political party win the polls.

Another of his confession was a somewhat sigh of relief for Awami National Party's Sindh chapter chief Shahi Syed, who was also on Quresh's hit-list among others. Allegedly Syed survived because he never showed up to offer Jumma (Friday) prayer at a mosque where Qureshi was lying in wait to shoot the ANP leader.

Also, Senor Superintendent of Police (SSP) Umer Shahid also escaped an armed attempt on his life by the breadth of a hair, the suspect claimed.

The Fire

"Ali Enterprises", which is located in Plot 67, Hub Road, Baldia Town, Karachi, used to export its garments to Europe and the United States, and had employed between 1,200 and 1,500 workers.

Ali Enterprises manufactured denim, knitted garments, and hosiery, and had capital of between $10 million and $50 million. Workers at Ali Enterprises said they earned between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees ($52 to $104) a month for their labour.

The factory manufactured jeans for textile discounter KiK. KiK claimed to control enforcement of labour laws and security standards of its suppliers. However, a security check in 2007 revealed deficiencies in fire protection of the Karachi plant, which KiK claimed were fixed by 2011.

According to the Pakistani Textile Workers Union (NTUF), a high working pressure and overtime with unpaid additional work were frequent at the factory. A few weeks prior to the fire, the factory passed an internationally recognised safety test.

The factory is also suspected of using child labour and locked workplaces analogous to prison cells. The owner of the factory, Abdul Aziz, had reportedly prevented inspections of the factory.

Investigation

One of the factory owners in Karachi, Arshad Bhaila, claimed that the fire first broke out in the warehouse and that he called the fire brigade, which arrived about 90 minutes late. Local media reported that the local fire department arrived 75 minutes after the fire started.

A judicial inquiry headed by Justice Zahid Qurban Alvi reported that a short circuit caused the fire. The report cited several factors that exacerbated the situation leading to the loss of life, including the late arrival of fire tenders, the lack of fire hydrants, and traffic congestion.

The tribunal was highly critical of the factory owners and government, which failed to enforce the law. It also criticized the police’s forensic department for failing to conduct a scientific investigation.

On September 14, 2012, Justice Hassan Azhar of Sindh High Court Larkana Bench approved Rs500,000 bail for factory owners Abdul Aziz, Shahid Bhaila and Arshad Bhaila. All the bank accounts of the owners and the company are frozen and the owners are not allowed to leave the country as they are on exit control list. The owners are facing charges of pre-meditated murder.

Pakistan National Federation of Trade Unions (PNFTU) Nasir Manoor said that the owner of the factory, Abdul Aziz, must have fled from the country despite having his name on the Exit Control List (ECL) and he would return only after the issue was off the media radar.

The Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) denied allegations that it was involved in the approval of the building plans for the Baldia Town garment factory. The CEO of Ali Enterprises, Shahid Bhalia, son of the factory's owner, said that he was innocent and was ready to appear before any court and provide compensation to the victims and their families.

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