Saeeda Khatoon on Tuesday displays a picture of her son, Ejaz Ahmed, who died in the 2012 fire.—AP
Saeeda Khatoon on Tuesday displays a picture of her son, Ejaz Ahmed, who died in the 2012 fire.—AP

• ATC rules Pakistan’s deadliest factory blaze was arson
• Muttahida claims it has nothing to do with case; PPP rejects assertion
• Four gatekeepers jailed for life; Rauf Siddiqui acquitted

KARACHI: An antiterrorism court on Tuesday sentenced two former activists of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) to death and awarded life imprisonment to four gatekeepers of the Baldia garments factory, while acquitting party leader Rauf Siddiqui in Pakistan’s deadliest industrial blaze case.

Some 264 male and female workers, including 16 who remain unidentified, were burnt alive in an ‘arson’ attack on the multistorey Ali Enterprises garments factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town on Sept 11, 2012.

According to the prosecution, the accused persons acted on the instruction of the-then chief of the Karachi Tanzeemi Committee Hammad Siddiqui after the factory owners failed to pay Rs250 million extortion or partnership in their business. Ten accused including Mr Siddiqui, MQM’s then-Baldia Town sector in-charge Abdul Rehman alias Bhola, activist Mohammad Zubair alias Chariya, Hyderabad-based businesspersons Dr Abdul Sattar Khan, Mst Iqbal Adeeb Khanum, Umar Hasan Qadri, and the industrial unit’s four gatekeepers were charged with setting fire to the readymade garments factory.

The judge of the ATC-VII, who conducted trial in the judicial complex inside the Karachi Central Prison, pronounced his verdict that had been reserved after recording evidence and final arguments from both sides.

The judgement in the high-profile case comes after eight years of the tragic incident.

Finding the-then MQM’s Baldia sector in-charge and the-then head of the ill-fated factory’s finishing department, Mohammad Zubair alias Chariya, guilty of committing an act of terrorism, the court handed down death sentence to each of them for causing death of 264 persons (both men and women) through ‘arson’ and ordered them to pay a fine of Rs200,000 for the death of each victim. The judge also awarded death sentence to the two activists under Section 302(a) (premeditated murder) and 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code for killing 264 persons.

According to the verdict, both Rehman and Zubair were also given life imprisonment for participation in the offence likely to cause the death and endanger the life of factory workers/emplo­yees present inside the factory. Bes­ides, 10-year imprisonment each was awarded to the two former MQM activists for attempting to murder 60 persons (men and women, who suffered injuries) and ordered to pay Rs100,000 as fine each or undergo six months additional imprisonment on default. They were further sentenced to life imprisonment under the antiterrorism act for causing injuries to 60 people and ordered to pay Rs200,000 fine each or undergo additional six months imprisonment on default. Another life term was awarded to them for creating serious risk to the public, factory owners, workers and employees inside the factory, thereby preventing them to get out of the burning factory building. Similar punishment was given to them for destroying the factory. The judge awarded a collective sentence of 15-year imprisonment each to Rehman and Zubair for threatening the factory owners and extorting money (“bhatta”) and ordered to pay a collective fine of Rs 250,000 each.

‘Gatekeepers abetted arsonists’

The judge awarded life imprisonment to each of the four gatekeepers namely Shahrukh Latif, Ali Mohammad, Arshad Mehmood and Fazal Ahmed for aiding and abetting Rehman and Zubair and their accomplices allowing them entry into the factory to cause endanger to the life of workers, employees and owners of the factory. They were told to pay Rs200,000 fine each and on default suffer six month additional imprisonment. The four gatekeepers were also given life imprisonment for sharing common intention with Rehman and Zubair and ordered to pay Rs100,000 fine or undergo six months imprisonment on default.

Each of the four accused was ordered to pay Rs2,777,353 as Diyat to the legal heirs of each of 264 victims. The amount of Diyat, if paid, will be deposited in the government treasury. All the four accused, who were present on bail, were taken into custody and sent to the prison to serve out their sentences, which shall run concurrently as the court extended the benefit of Section 382(b) of the Criminal Procedure Code.

The judge exonerated the MQM-Pakistan leader Abdul Rauf Siddiqui and the three Hyderabad-based business persons of the charges of allegedly receiving Rs50.9 million from the factory owners under the pretext of giving compensation to the legal heirs of the victims. They appeared before the court on bail and the judge cancelled their bail and discharged their sureties.

While the judge sent a reference to the Sindh High Court for confirmation of all the sentences, the case against proclaimed offenders Hammad Siddiqui and Ali Hassan Qadri was kept on dormant file until their surrender or arrest for which the court issued perpetual non-bailable warrants.

Factory owner’s testimony

The judge noted that the factory owner Arshad Bhaila in his statement recorded from Dubai deposed that he had been pressed hard repeatedly by the activists of MQM (Altaf) and Baldia sector activists of the party before the factory was torched through chemical substance. Mr Bhaila narrated the full particulars from the day one that he faced and under the tremendous pressure exerted upon him, his brother and father due to which he used to pay extortion money to the activists of MQM-A till the occurrence. Though he was not an eyewitness he specified the details of activities of the MQM workers in the factory that had neither been denied nor rebutted by the accused persons.

“The evidence of the factory owner nowhere suggests that such act of fire was due to his negligence or closure of doors by him deliberately,” the judge wrote in the 146-page judgement. The court ruled that the evidence of prosecution witness Kashif, other witnesses as well as Mr Bhalia specifically pinpointed that it all was arson and sabotage activity.

The judge noted that the prosecution examined 400 witnesses, whose testimonies corroborated with the allegations of the prosecution, as well as the reports of the experts of forensic, chemical and ballistic experts also determined that the fire was caused by some chemicals.

The Rangers special public prosecutor Sajid Mehboob Shaikh represented the prosecution while Advocates Shaukat Hayat, Abid Zaman, M.T. Khan, Hasan Sabir, Mansoor Akhtar and others represented the accused persons.

MQM says it has nothing to do with case

Soon after the court verdict, MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui told the media that he had resigned from his post of provincial minister when the incident had occurred. “People don’t let go of a cleaner’s job [but] I had resigned from my post,” he remarked, expressing gratitude over the court decision.

He said he was unable to forget the night of the incident, which would come to his mind every time he had to appear in court. “To this day, I can still hear the screams of the victim’s families,” he added.

Another MQM leader Faisal Subzwari posted the response of his party’s spokesperson on twitter, which said the acquittal of party leader Rauf Siddiqui proved that the MQM-Pakistan had nothing to do with the case. “[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,” Mr Sabzwari’s tweet quoted the party spokesperson as saying.

PPP objects to MQM claim

Mr Subzwari’s tweet drew a quick response from PPP leader and Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani who asked him to tell who was “Hammad Siddiqui, Bhola and Charya”.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2020