KARACHI: While there is some movement in the case of the Baldia factory fire, in which 260 workers perished, the victims’ families wait for justice still appears to be a long one as the judicial process continues, it emerged on Monday.

The workers were burnt alive when the multistorey garment factory building was set on fire in Baldia Town on Sept 11, 2012.

Nine accused — including Muttahida Qaumi Movement lawmaker and then provincial minister for commerce and industries Rauf Siddiqui, then MQM sector in-charge Abdul Rehman alias Bhola, Zubair alias Chariya — were charged with allegedly setting ablaze the ill-fated industrial unit with the help of its four gatekeepers — Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad.

The prosecution alleged that they acted on the instruction of the then head of the MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee (KTC) Hammad Siddiqui since the factory owners failed to pay protection money.

More than 250 workers lost their lives when the industrial unit was set on fire six years ago

Hyderabad-based business persons Umar Hasan Qadri, Ali Hasan Qadri, Dr Abdul Sattar Khan, Ms Iqbal Adeeb Khanum have been booked for purportedly using the money allegedly extorted from the factory owners on the pretext of compensation for victims.

The ATC-VII judge, who is conducting the trial at the judicial complex inside the central prison, had framed the charges of terrorism, extortion and arson on the accused persons on Feb 14. But, they pleaded not guilty and opted to contest.

“Currently, two accused persons — Bhola and Chariya are incarcerated in jail,” advocate Sajid Mehboob Sheikh, special public prosecutor representing the Rangers which became the prosecuting agency in the case after the charges of terrorism, extortion and murder were added, told Dawn.

Seven other accused persons, including Rauf Siddiqui, the Hyderabad-based business persons and the four gatekeepers of M/s Ali Enterprises are on bail, he added.

The judicial and prosecution sources said Hammad Siddiqui and Ali Hasan Qadri had been declared proclaimed offenders in the case.

“Hammad is still out of the country,” the prosecution sources explained, adding that the media reports regarding his arrest in Dubai through Interpol “could not be confirmed” due to which the process to bring him back to the country was not initiated.

“Qadri went to America for cancer treatment after obtaining bail from the trial court and he is said to be unable to travel back due to his worsening health condition,” they added.

Initially, owner of the factory Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his two sons, Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, a general manager and four gatekeepers were charge-sheeted by the police for their alleged ‘negligence’.

However, the case took a new turn in February 2015 when Pakistan Rangers, Sindh, submitted a joint investigation team (JIT) report in the Sindh High Court (SHC), which revealed that the factory was set on fire after its owners failed to pay ‘protection money’.

Subsequently, the reinvestigation of the case was ordered in March 2015 through a JIT. In the meantime, the SHC directed the ATC to expedite the trial and submit a progress report of every hearing.

“Earlier, the police had almost buried the case due to political exigencies,” the paramilitary force’s prosecutor blamed, saying the matter was being used as a political tool between the then ruling political parties.

Later, the police through a progress report informed the trial court in March 2016 that the factory fire was a planned terrorist act and the JIT had recommended that a new case be registered under the antiterrorism law against Hammad Siddiqui, Bhola, brothers Ali Hasan Qadri and Umar Hasan Qadri, Dr Abdul Sattar, Chariya and others.

However, after a lengthy reinvestigation, the police filed a supplementary investigation report in August 2016 in which they only charge-sheeted Hammad Siddiqui, Bhola and their three to four unknown accomplices and did not send the 13 other suspects, including those proposed by the JIT, for trial.

But the court had put all discharged men in the list of the accused by observing that the owners/manager had ordered the closure of the gates while others abetted the crime one way or another by extorting money on the pretext of distributing it among the victim families.

Later, the court recalled its order regarding the inclusion of the owners as accused as the prosecution said they were the key witnesses of the case.

“Ever since the case is moving in the right direction and we believe it will definitely be decided,” said prosecutor Sheikh.

The judicial record suggested that the investigating officer had initially listed 720 witnesses in the supplementary charge sheet, but 40 of them were later dropped.

“Six witnesses, including four doctors and two police officials, have died [a] natural death during this period,” the prosecution and judicial sources told Dawn.

The remaining 674 prosecution witnesses included over 300 private persons, 259 legal heirs of the victims and 56 survivors.

“So far, the testimonies of 109 witnesses have been recorded,” the sources said, adding that they included 24 doctors (out of total 31 listed) and 32 police officials (out of total 40 listed) and others.

The sources estimated that there were around 560 witnesses of the prosecution still to be examined by the court, and said it could take months to record the lengthy testimonies of the victims’ families and the survivors.

An antiterrorism court is legally bound to decide a case within seven days after indictment, according to Section 19 (7) of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

“We expect that the proceedings would finally wrap up before the next anniversary of the tragic incident,” said prosecutor Mehboob.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2018