ATC hands death sentence to two MQM workers in Baldia factory fire case; Rauf Siddiqui acquitted

Updated 23 Sep 2020

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In this file photo taken on September 13, 2012, people gather in a garment factory in Karachi following a fire, in which more than 260 people died, on the third day of the fire incident. — AFP
In this file photo taken on September 13, 2012, people gather in a garment factory in Karachi following a fire, in which more than 260 people died, on the third day of the fire incident. — AFP

An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Karachi on Tuesday sentenced two MQM workers, Zubair aka Charya and Abdul Rehman aka Bhola, to death in the high-profile Baldia factory arson case — eight years after the blaze claimed hundreds of lives.

In its 146-page detailed verdict, the court convicted Bhola and Charya on 11 counts, handing each of the duo death sentences on two counts, life sentences on four counts, prison sentences of 10 years on two counts as well as prison sentences of seven, three and two years on three separate counts.

The factory's four gatekeepers — Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad — were convicted for facilitating the carnage, resulting in the deaths of 264 people and injuring 60 others, and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for life on two counts, along with a fine of Rs0.2 million on each count. Additionally, they were ordered to pay RsRs27,77,353 as Diyat to each of the victims’ families.

Meanwhile, the court acquitted MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui, then-provincial minister for commerce and industries, and three others — Iqbal Adeel Khanum, Umar Hassan and Dr Abdul Sattar Khan

According to the verdict, the sentences would run concurrently and the convicts were entitled to Section 382-B (period of detention to be considered while awarding sentence of imprisonment) of the Code of Criminal Procedure Code.

'MQM-P has nothing to do with case'

MQM-Pakistan leader Faisal Subzwari in a tweet quoted a spokesperson for his party as saying that the acquittal of Rauf Siddiqui, a member of Rabita Committee, in the case "proves that MQM-Pakistan has nothing to do with this case".

The spokesperson expressed sympathies with the victims and their relatives for having to wait eight years for the verdict and expressed the hope that the country's higher courts will ensure complete justice for them.

"[We] make it clear that patronage of any anti-social and law-breaking elements neither was nor will ever be a policy of MQM-Pakistan," the spokesperson added, according to Subzwari.

Addressing a press conference shortly after the verdict was announced, MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui said that he had resigned from his post when the incident occurred. "People don't let go of a cleaner's job [but] I had resigned from my post."

He added that he was thankful for the decision announced by the court. "To this day, I can still hear the screams of the victim's families."

He said that he was unable to forgot the night of the incident, which would come to his mind every time he had to appear in court.

8 years on

Women walk along a road with the abandoned building of the Baldia garment factory where the deadly fire occurred in the background, in Karachi, Sept 17, 2020.  — Reuters
Women walk along a road with the abandoned building of the Baldia garment factory where the deadly fire occurred in the background, in Karachi, Sept 17, 2020. — Reuters

Over 260 workers, including 16 who have yet to be identified, were burnt alive when the multi-storey Ali Enterprises garment 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 — including Siddiqui; MQM’s then-Baldia Town sector in-charge Rehman; Zubair; Hyderabad-based businessmen Dr Khan; Umar Hasan Qadri; Khanum and the industrial unit’s four gatekeepers — were charged with setting ablaze the factory.

Analyse: 8 years on, have we learnt anything from the Baldia fire which claimed more than 260 lives?

According to a joint investigation team report made public in July, the fire was not an accident rather a “planned sabotage/ terror activity” carried out over non-payment of Rs200 million extortion and partnership in factory profits.

The report held the then head of MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee Hammad Siddiqui and Rehman Bhola responsible for the incident. The JIT was critical of the initial police investigation into the case and observed that the police dealt it in an unprofessional manner and in a way to benefit “the offenders” instead of the victims for some “motives and gains”. It said the “fear and favour” were dominating factors in initial investigation, which affected the police performance “length and breadth”.

The JIT recommended a fresh FIR under terror charges against eight accused including Hammad Siddiqui.

400 witnesses testify

The prosecution rested its case after recording material evidence, including forensic, ballistic and chemical analysis reports and testimonies of 400 witnesses against the accused. The prosecution gave up 369 witnesses for being "unnecessary".

According to prosecutor Sajid Mehboob Shaikh, a total of 264 people perished in the fire that engulfed the multi-storey building of the readymade garments manufacturing unit. The number included bodies of 17 people who were charred beyond recognition.

All the accused had denied the allegations levelled by the prosecution.

The special public prosecutor, representing the Sindh Rangers in the Baldia factory fire case, had told the court during a hearing in February that MQM leaders had pressured police to halt investigations into the incident a week after the deadly inferno.

It was unearthed within a week that the Baldia factory fire was a deliberate act of arson instead of an accident, but the police high-ups changed the first investigating officer allegedly under pressure from the MQM, special public prosecutor Sajid Mehboob Shaikh had informed the ATC.

Prosecutor Shaikh referred to the testimonies of around 370 prosecution witnesses, including the first investigation officer of the case, Inspector Zafar Iqbal, and said the police's initial stance that an electric short-circuit had caused the fire in the factory was wrong.

The IO had testified that the investigation was withdrawn from him by the police high-ups due to alleged pressure from the leadership of the MQM, the prosecutor added.