Baldia fire convictions

Updated 24 Sep 2020

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EIGHT years ago this month, 264 men and women were burned alive in an inferno that engulfed the garment factory in Karachi where they worked. It is only now that some measure of justice has been done (albeit Dawn is opposed to the death penalty) in that ghastly tragedy which ranks among the world’s deadliest industrial disasters.

An antiterrorism court on Tuesday awarded capital punishment to two former MQM activists and sentenced four gatekeepers of the factory to life imprisonment, while acquitting party leader Rauf Siddiqui. It appears the men, acting on the orders of the then chief of MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee Hammad Siddiqui, set the building ablaze after the factory owners did not pay Rs250m extortion or offer a share in their business.

When the crime was committed, the party had a mafia-like grip over much of Karachi. A story was put about that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit due to poor maintenance and the police filed an FIR against the factory owners. It was in early 2015, by which time the Karachi operation had defanged the MQM, that the case took a dramatic turn. A Rangers report, based on an MQM activist’s confession from nearly two years earlier, held the party — then led by Altaf Hussain — as being squarely responsible for the fire.

However, one of the main accused, Hammad Siddiqui, is still ostensibly on the run. A report some three years ago claiming he had been arrested in Dubai was denied by law-enforcement authorities; whether that is true, or whether a ‘confessional’ video will surface at an opportune time in the future, is difficult to tell. There are always some trump cards that are kept in play by the powers that be — and the ones that have outlived their usefulness are discarded. Saulat Mirza is a case in point.

Nevertheless, the convictions of most of the accused will bring some solace to the victims’ families. That said, the Baldia fire stands out because it was an unparalleled atrocity; the thuggish regime on whose watch it took place thrived on criminality as a matter of course. MQM cadres, armed to the teeth, would paralyse the entire city at a moment’s notice, disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods on the whims of their leader-in-exile in London. The party’s network of ruthless sector and unit ‘in-charges’ in collusion with some of the party’s top leaders was involved in multiple rackets including extortion, china-cutting, etc. Those who put up any resistance or simply happened to come in the way, paid the ultimate price.

While the Karachi operation managed to nab several MQM ‘assets’, those higher up the ladder — including the ones who gave the orders — are now part of the MQM-P and the Pak Sarzameen Party. The politics of expediency has given them a new lease of life.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2020