Expert says Baldia fire may have been caused by ‘volatile accelerator’

Updated April 30, 2019

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Highlight the fact that samples were collected three years after the incident. — AFP/File
Highlight the fact that samples were collected three years after the incident. — AFP/File

KARACHI: An antiterrorism court on Monday recorded the statement of a senior chemical researcher in a case pertaining to the Baldia factory fire, in which around 250 workers were killed in 2012.

Nine accused — including Muttahida Qaumi Movement lawmaker Rauf Siddiqui, Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola; and M. Zubair, alias Chariya — have been charged with setting ablaze a garment factory in Baldia Town with the help of its four gatekeepers — Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad — on Sept 11, 2012.

On Monday, Rangers special public prosecutor Sajid Mehboob Shaikh produced a senior researcher of the chemistry department of the University of Karachi, to record his statement in court.

The witness testified that in 2015 he received a letter from then SITE SSP Sajid Amir Saddozai, one of the members of the joint investigation team (JIT) probing the inferno case, asking him to collect the samples of chemical evidence, etc to determine the cause of the fire.

The report of the chemical analysis stated that based on preliminary discussion a team of experts visited the site, met the eyewitnesses and collected the samples from the factory for an analysis.

Highlights the fact that samples were collected three years after the incident

“After observing the pattern of fire and eyewitnesses accounts, we feel that the fire may have been caused by volatile accelerator,” stated the report signed by the chemical experts, who are PhD in chemistry.

It further stated that the samples were analysed for the presence of volatile accelerator(s) by employing GC-MS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry), ICP (inductively coupled plasma) and HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography).

“However, no trace of any accelerator was found in any of the samples,” the report stated. “Kindly note that samples were collected after three years of incident, and it is unlikely any volatile compound would exist after such a long time.”

Later, the defence counsel for the accused persons grilled the witness and argued that there were “contradictions” in the report, as first it stated that the fire was caused by a volatile accelerator, but then stated that such traces were not found in the samples.

The witness deposed that inorganic volatile compounds, which contain magnesium, did not need a flame to ignite a fire, as it caused a fire after mixing with oxygen.

The witness further testified that a fire caused by such volatile accelerators could further aggravate if water was sprinkled on it and such a compound later turned into salt after burning and got dissolved in water. The researcher said the traces of such compound could have possibly been found if the samples had been collected immediately after the incident.

After recording the statement and completion of the cross-examination of the witness, the judge summoned more witnesses to testify, and fixed the matter on May 2.

JIT’s report of ‘hitman’

A report of the joint investigation team that interrogated an alleged hitman belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Rizwan Qureshi, was also recently submitted to the court by a prosecution witness.

The judge placed on record the report filed by a prosecution witness, DIG Nasir Aftab, who was part of the JIT.

The report revealed that during interrogation in an arms case detained accused Rizwan Qureshi disclosed that a well-known party leader had allegedly demanded extortion of Rs200 million through his frontman from the factory owners in August 2012.

He further stated that the owners met MQM’s Baldia sector in-charge Asghar Baig and told him that in the name of the party some key leader had asked them to pay the extortion amount.

Asghar Baig and his brother Majid Baig took the factory owners to the MQM headquarters, 90, where they met Hammad Siddiqui, the then in-charge of the Karachi Tanzeemi Committee, and Farooq Saleem. Mr Baig reminded them that the factory owners were their supporters and also told them about the extortion demand.

“After hearing everything, Hammad Siddiqui and Farooq Saleem replied that the matter was not from their side. On this attitude sector in-charge of Baldia Asghar Baig and his brother used harsh words with Siddiqui and Saleem and returned from there,” the report said.

It further stated that after a few days Siddiqui suspended Asghar Baig and assigned the office of the Baldia sector in-charge to the joint sector in-charge of Baldia Town, Rehman Bhola.

Later on both Siddiqui and Saleem ordered Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola, to collect the extortion money from the factory owners on the order of the party high command, it said, adding that Bhola again demanded Rs200m from the factory owners.

After denial by the factory owners, on Sept 11, 2012, Bhola and his unknown accomplices allegedly threw a chemical substance, which caused a fire in the factory, the report quoted Rizwan Qureshi as saying.

The report said that on the next day Crime Investigation Department personnel raided the homes of the Baig brothers in Gujrat Mohalla of Baldia Town and arrested Majid, but released him after the factory owners, allegedly under pressure from the MQM, gave a statement that he (Majid) was not involved in the fire incident.

The report further alleged that on the orders of the party high official, an ex-minister of the MQM went to the police station and registered a case against the factory owners, adding that the factory owners obtained pre-arrest bail from the Sindh High Court, but the ex-minister got their bail cancelled by using his connections.

After that an ex-prime minister helped the factory owners in getting bail from the Lahore High Court, but after intervention from the MQM’s “high official” stating that since it was a provincial issue so he should stay away from it, the then ex-premier stepped back from the matter, the report added. It also claimed that later an unknown frontman of the same party high official, who was in government, took Rs150m from the factory owners for the disposal of the case.

The report concluded that accused Rizwan Qureshi said that he had collected all this information from the former sector in-charge of Baldia Town.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2019