KARACHI: Millions of rupees were extorted from the owners of the Baldia garments factory through bullying allegedly by office-bearers of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement following the 2012 fire incident in which 259 factory workers had been killed, according to the joint investigation team.

The JIT report, which has been obtained by Dawn, said it emerged after visiting Dubai and meeting the owners of Ali Enterprises, the factory, Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, that they were “under tremendous pressure from MQM office-bearers” after being released on bail from jail on Feb 11, 2013. Therefore, it added, the factory owners decided to “reconcile with the MQM”.

For this purpose, it said, they held a series of meetings with a Hyderabad-based businessman, Mohammad Ali Hassan, who claimed to be a close associate of Anis Qaimkhani, the then deputy convener of the coordination committee of the MQM. He told the factory owners that the MQM could intervene in the matter “if they were ready to pay compensation at the rate of Rs250,000 per casualty and Rs100,000 per injured”.

The Bhaila brothers agreed to this settlement and deposited Rs59.8 million in a bank account of Mr Hassan’s father, Siddique Hassan Qadri, on April 30, 2013, with the understanding that the remaining money would be paid at the time of cheques distribution among fire victims, according to the JIT.

While the promised compensation cheques distribution ceremony was never organised, Mr Hassan informed the factory owners that the money they had paid was transferred to Mr Qaimkhani.

Dr Abdul Sattar Khan, the adopted son (nephew) of Mr Qaimkhani, later made a payment of Rs13.5 million to a builder, Mohammad Yamin, for the purchase of a property in Latifabad in the name of Mst Iqbal Adeeb Khanum who was said to be a friend of the Qadri family, according to the JIT. The report said: “All the amount is extorted from the Bhaila brothers and is still with the Qadri brothers and Dr Abdul Sattar in the shape of above property.”

Forensic report

Meanwhile, the JIT formed to reinvestigate the factory fire arrived at the conclusion that it was a terrorist and sabotage activity on the basis of technical reports submitted by the Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA) and HEJ international centre for chemical and biological sciences, Karachi University, as well as eyewitness accounts.

While HEJ institute termed the fire in Ali Enterprises, the factory, as ‘unnatural,’ the PFSA clearly called it as an ‘arson act.’ The forensic report also said discontinuous fire patches indicated that fire erupted at multiple points in the factory. “Discontinuous burn patterns which caused small and localised damages were also identified. In presence of same type of cloth (combustible material), such patterns could lead to opine the involvement of humanly activity regarding fire initiation,” said the PFSA report.

Factory owners’ statement

The JIT members, who recorded the statement of Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila in Dubai, the UAE, said their statement corroborated the ‘solid evidence’ that the element of extortion was very much there and the circumstances leading to the incident were not normal.

“Extortion demand [of Rs250 million] and threats to the owners and factory were a reality and if the incident was not an accident, then the only motive behind the sabotage committed by the perpetrators was to threaten the owners to pay the extortion money demanded by Rehman alias Bhola, the then sector in charge,” said the JIT report.

According to the factory owners’ statement recorded by the JIT, they were leaving the factory late evening in July 2012 when they were “stopped by Baldia sector in charge Rehman Bhola who threatened us to resolve the issue of extortion and contact Hammad Siddiqui, Karachi Tanzeemi Committee in charge, in this regard. On inquiring, he pitched the demand at Rs25 crores [i.e. Rs250 million] and partnership in the factory. We were simply shocked and could not reconcile to this exorbitant demand.”

The JIT said the owners were subjected to ‘harassment’ from the very beginning and claimed that the doors were not locked at the time of the tragedy as had been reported previously. It added that the authorities, particularly the police, did not give confidence to the factory owners to divulge the circumstances that led to the incident.

“There are evidences that the control of factory was taken over by workers of MQM and an FIR was lodged without consulting the owners.”

About the previous investigation, “the JIT is of unanimous opinion that the investigation of the case was unidirectional.” It was perhaps an effort to prove the contents of the FIR.

“The so obvious element of extortion was missed out and statements of eye witnesses were engineered to make out a case of accidental fire and criminal negligence of owners from the outset,” said the JIT report while holding the initial investigators responsible for the ‘criminal negligence’.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2016