Last prosecution witness deposes in Baldia factory fire case

Updated November 22, 2019

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In the deadly fire in the Baldia Town factory in which over 250 workers were killed. — AFP/File
In the deadly fire in the Baldia Town factory in which over 250 workers were killed. — AFP/File

KARACHI: An antiterrorism court recorded on Thursday the testimony of the last remaining prosecution witness — the fifth investigating officer, who had initially let off the then provincial minister Rauf Siddiqui and the owners of Ali Enterprises — in the case pertaining to deadly fire in the Baldia Town factory in which over 250 workers were killed.

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; M. Zubair alias Chariya — have been charged with setting ablaze the industrial unit with the help of its four gatekeepers — Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad.

On Thursday, the matter came up before the ATC-VI judge, when the special public prosecutor produced the last remaining witness of the prosecution Inspector Raja Jahangir.

Detained accused Rehman and Zubair were produced from prison while MQM lawmaker Siddiqui and others appeared in court on bail.

The witness deposed that he was assigned the investigation of the case pertaining to the incident of the fire in Ali Enterprises garments factory — the fifth IO to probe the deadly incident.

400 prosecution witnesses have testified in the case

Inspector Jahangir testified that he was assigned the case in 2016, adding that after taking up the investigation he arrested Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola, the then in-charge of the MQM’s sector in Baldia, who was brought from Bangkok after arrest by Interpol, and Zubair, alias Chariya, who was already detained in prison.

The witness further testified that said after formally arresting Bhola he moved an application before the judicial magistrate concerned for recording the confessional statement of Bhola under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. “The accused confessed to his involvement in the offence,” he added.

Advocate Abid Zaman, the defence counsel for the MQM lawmaker, asked the investigator whether he had initially mentioned the name of Rauf Siddiqui in the blue ink in the second column of the charge sheet of the case.

The witness replied in affirmative saying that he had placed Siddiqui and four factory gatekeepers in the second column of the charge sheet in blue ink which meant that no incriminating evidence was found against them “at the moment”.

In April 2017, IO Jahangir came up with the second supplementary charge sheet and said the MPA was not named as accused and placed the names of Mr Siddiqui and four employees of the industrial unit in column two of the charge sheet in blue ink, stating that incriminating evidence was not found against them.

Upon completion of the cross-examination of the last witness, Rangers special public prosecutor Sajid Mehboob Shaikh moved an application to rest the prosecution’s side in the case.

In the plea, the prosecutor submitted that he had brought entire evidence, including circumstantial, ocular, medical as well as forensic, on the record of the court during the trial proceedings.

He mentioned that testimonies of 400 witnesses of the prosecution had been recorded before the court since February 2017. Therefore, he pleaded to the court to allow his application for resting the prosecution’s side.

The judge allowed the application and fixed the matter for recording the statements of the accused on Dec 5.

The paramilitary Rangers, which became the prosecuting agency in the present case in 2017 in lieu of the police, had initially listed 768 witnesses in the charge sheet. Later, 368 of them were given up for being unnecessary. So far, the court has examined 399 witnesses.

According to the prosecution, the accused persons acted on the directives of then MQM Karachi Tanzeemi Committee chief Hammad Siddiqui and set the industrial unit on fire after its owner refused to pay Rs250 million protection money and 50 per cent shares in the profit.

Initially, names of the owner of the industrial unit Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his two sons Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, general manager Mansoor and three gatekeepers were put in the charge sheet for their alleged negligence towards ensuring the workers’ safety at the workplace.

However, things took a dramatic turn in February 2015 after reinvestigation of the case was ordered and Pakistan Rangers submitted the report of a joint investigation team, which had been formed to quiz suspect Rizwan Qureshi among others, to the Sindh High Court.

It had revealed that the factory was set on fire because its owners had failed to pay the protection money.

According to the last supplementary report, Abdul Rehman was brought back with the help of Interpol after his arrest in Bangkok in 2016.

Bhola in his confessional statement before a judicial magistrate allegedly disclosed that he with detained suspect Zubair and others had set the factory on fire on instructions of Hammad Siddiqui as the factory owners had refused to pay the demanded protection money and “partnership” in the business.

Bhola said he came to know that the lawmaker and Hammad Siddiqui had received Rs40m to Rs50m from the owners in return for toning down the case against them.

The IO had declared Hammad Siddiqui an absconder in the case.

Two Hyderabad-based businessmen brothers, Ali Hassan Qadri and Umar Hassan Qadri, and some others have also been booked purportedly for using the money allegedly extorted from the factory owners in the name of compensation to the fire victims.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2019