KARACHI: An antiterrorism court, which was expected to wrap up the hearing of the high-profile Baldia factory fire case proceedings on Thursday, adjourned the hearing till Sept 22 after parties argued on the important point of award of compensation to legal heirs of the victims, in case of conviction of the accused persons.

The judge of the ATC-VII, who is conducting the trial in the judicial complex inside the central prison, is likely to announce his verdict on the next date after hearing concluding arguments from the special public prosecutor and the defence counsel for the accused.

Over 260 workers were burnt alive when the multistorey Ali Enterprises garments factory was set on fire in Baldia Town on September 11, 2012 in what became the deadliest industrial blaze in Pakistan’s history.

Ten accused — then-provincial minister for commerce and industries Rauf Siddiqui, MQM’s then Baldia Town sector in-charge Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola; Zubair, alias Charya; Hyderabad-based businessmen Dr Abdul Sattar Khan; Umar Hasan Qadri; Iqbal Adeeb Khanum and the industrial unit’s four gatekeepers — Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad — were charged with setting ablaze the factory.

On Thursday, the special public prosecutor for Rangers Sajid Mehboob Shaikh and defence counsel for the accused persons argued on the point of fixing fines and awarding of compensation to the legal heirs of the victims, in case of conviction of the accused persons.

Twenty-four bodies have still not been claimed by anyone

Prosecutor Shaikh provided additional documents pertaining to the total number of victims and their legal heirs, who are entitled to award of compensation, as per statistics compiled by the judicial commission constituted by the Sindh High Court (SHC) to disburse the amount contributed by the Pakistani government, the factory owners and Germany-based buyer company KiK.

The prosecutor informed that post-mortem examination of total 263 deceased persons was conducted, which include 23 unidentified bodies charred beyond recognition.

One mobile phone has also been counted as a body, taking the total death toll to 264.

However, he said that a judicial commission constituted on the directives of the SHC had disbursed monetary compensation among 240 claimants since 24 bodies still had not been claimed by anyone.

Mr Shaikh argued that the compensation amount disbursed by the judicial commission was given by the factory’s owners, their German buyer KiK, some non-governmental organisation as well as the federal and Sindh governments “as separate compensation on sympathetic basis”.

The prosecutor said that such compensation had nothing to do with the ongoing criminal case, as it was given by all contributors on voluntary basis, which was clearly mentioned by the SHC as well as the judicial commission in their orders.

Therefore, the prosecutor insisted that the compensation awarded by the judicial commission had no relation to the criminal case.

It may be mentioned here that under the law, in most of the cases, the courts imposed fines on the accused persons and also ordered them to compensate legal heirs of the victims in murder cases.

The defence counsel for the accused persons also agreed with the prosecutor on the point of compensation, arguing that the matter pertained to the civil rights of the legal heirs of the victims, thus the compensation disbursed by the judicial commission had nothing to do with the ongoing trial proceedings of the Baldia factory fire case.

After hearing arguments on this point, the judge adjourned hearing till Sept 22 to hear further final arguments from the prosecutor as well as the defence counsel for the parties.

The court is expected to pronounce its judgement in the case on the next date of hearing.

According to the prosecution, the accused persons allegedly acted on the instructions of the then chief of MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee, Hammad Siddiqui, over the non-payment of protection money of Rs250 million by the factory’s owners.

Hammad and businessman Ali Hasan Qadri were declared proclaimed offenders in the case as both were reportedly hiding abroad.

The factory’s owner Arshad Bhaila had testified in the court that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) men allegedly asked him to pay Rs250m in extortion or 50 per cent “shares” in the profits. He said he was willing to pay Rs10m.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2020