Two MQM workers were sentenced to death, four to life imprisonment, and four were acquitted by an anti-terrorism court in Karachi on Tuesday in the Baldia factory fire case.
Abdul Rehman alias ‘Bhola’ and Zubair alias ‘Charya’ were both given the death penalty for their key role in the factory fire, while Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad were jailed for life for facilitating the crime.
Other MQM workers — Abdul Sattar Rauf Siddiqui, Adeeb Khanum,and Ali Hasan Qadri — were among those acquitted for a lack of evidence.
Siddiqui, at the time of the incident, was commerce and industries minister.
In September 2012, what came to be known as Pakistan’s deadliest industrial blaze, a fire devoured more than 260 lives at a factory situated in Karachi’s Baldia Town. Investigations led to revelations that the factory was deliberately set ablaze over non-payment of Rs250 million in protection money.
During the hearings, the prosecution told the court that 263 people were killed in the incident, of which 23, despite the passage of eight years, have not been identified.
It said that there had been a total of 186 hearings held in the case during which 400 witnesses were presented.
The factory owners provided testimony via video link from Dubai. They testified to MQM’s demand of Rs250 million in extortion money.
Arshad Bhaila, one of the owners of the factory, said that MQM men had asked him to pay Rs250 million or a 50% share in profits. He said he had been willing to pay Rs10 million.
Rehman, the prime accused, had admitted that he deliberately set ablaze the Ali Enterprise factory on the instructions of MQM leader Hammad Siddiqui.
Bhola had also disclosed that the MQM leader gave him instructions to set fire to the factory. He had claimed that the intent behind the arson attack was only to intimidate the owners of Ali Enterprise; he didn’t anticipate that his act would result in the loss of lives.
Independent opinions suggest that regardless of the cause of the fire, casualties occurred because the factory lacked the basic occupational health and safety standards, while the building design was also flawed.
According to London-based research group Forensic Architecture, which conducted an analysis of the fire using computer simulation, inadequate safety measures at the factory had led to the catastrophic death toll.
‘JIT’s decision to not name factory owners in charge-sheet’
The investigation officer in the case, SSP Sajid Saduzai, in a briefing to the media, said that it had been the probing authorities’ goal to restore the public’s confidence in the country’s law enforcement agencies.
“We tried our best to see to it that a verdict based on justice and fairness is issued,” he said.
The SSP said that the decision to not nominate any factory owner in the case was taken by the joint investigation team (JIT).
“Police could not have decided in this matter independently,” he explained.
He said that the owners had been named among the affected partees in the JIT report.
“There is a difference between JIT and legal procedures,” said the investigating officer.
“Our aim was to name and punish the real culprits,” he added.
MQM-P distances itself from crime
Following the verdict, a statement was issued by MQM-P’s Faisal Subzwari saying that Rauf Siddiqui’s acquittal “is proof of the fact that MQM had no association with the case”.
He said the party sympathises with the heirs of the victims who had to wait eight years for the verdict to be announced.
“We hope that the courts ensure the speedy delivery of justice to all the victims of the tragedy.
“We would also like to make clear that supporting any anti-social, lawbreaking individuals was never a policy of the MQM-P and never will be,” Subzwari added.