LOOKING down from the second floor of the city courts east building, it is hard to tell where the fire had started from.
Last Tuesday, fire erupted in the warehouse or malkhana of the City Courts in Karachi, destroying case property dating back nearly 110 years ago. Shelves crumbled as documents, money, jewellery, clothes, expensive bottles of alcohol and other items of evidence collected from murder, extortion and corruption cases over the years had turned to ash. All that remains are thick beams that once held up the roof.
The malkhana, which was used as a prison and execution pit in 1868, has been cordoned off with a tent since Wednesday, with policemen on duty around the clock. Loiterers are not allowed, although many lawyers claim that they frequent the malkhana just to look around at the treasures it once housed.
An official shares that as the city’s population increased, the prison was moved from the site and since then, the pre-Partition buildings were used as courts. The warehouse which housed case property and evidence from South, East, West and Central districts, was part of the police barracks till 1906 and used as a malkhana from 1910 onwards.
He says that evidence was simply dumped inside over the years and it had gotten quite congested.
“While everything that was kept inside was recorded, it was not organised properly. It was a fire and safety hazard. The administration had been warned of what could happen several times…nothing was done,” he adds.
The malkhana used to store local and foreign currencies, diamonds, gold bars, bounced cheques, hand grenades, pistols, rifles, chemicals, knives, bullet casings and much more.
Lawyers sitting near the main canteen of the City Courts can see the roof of the malkhana, or what is left of it, blackened and charred from where the flames had licked it.
“My client had millions of rupees inside. Now it’s all gone. They’re saying all evidence and case property from South and East districts is gone…what will happen now,” asks Shafqat Hussain, a lawyer who has been in the profession for more than 30 years.
“Everyone is going to get off scot-free... that’s what will happen now,” says another lawyer.
There were rumours that evidence of high-profile cases related to the Abbas Town blast, PNS Mehran, Uzair Baloch and Intizar murder was also destroyed in the fire. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? Elections are about to take place so what better time to set fire to the malkhana and get all your men out,” he adds.
“Someone should ask them why this place only catches fire at night,” pipes in another lawyer, adding that this was the fourth fire he had seen.
No one is certain about what caused the fire. While talking to the media the day after the fire erupted, the IGP had said that there was a short-circuit while Chief Fire Officer Tehseen Siddique alleged that bullets and explosives present inside the warehouse were to be blamed for the inferno.
The Karachi Bar Association claims that they were after those responsible for maintaining the malkhana properly as it had some potentially dangerous items inside.
“In malkhanas all over the world there is a certain set of standards and procedures that are followed…not like here where case property is just wrapped in a white cloth, tagged and kept wherever they find space,” they say, adding that they had made a suggestion to house the explosives and ammunition separate from cash, gold and other items but it had fallen on deaf ears.
“There are so many people who visit here on a daily basis. What if something triggered randomly or something fell and set a bomb off, what will happen then,” asks the association’s members.
According to a member sitting there, a forensics team from Lahore had been called in to investigate the fire. “Who knows what they will find here now,” he says.
According to former Karachi Bar Association president Salahuddin Ahmed, during his tenure, there was a case where two havaldars were playing with a grenade in the malkhana and it went off mid-way, leaving one man’s arm burned. They both survived but things like this used to happen, he added.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2018