The high-profile Baldia factory fire case against Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) lawmaker Rauf Siddiqui and nine others is expected to reach a verdict in by anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Karachi eight years after the terrifying industrial fire.
Ali Enterprises garment factory was set ablaze on September 11, 2012, in Baldia Town, and 260 workers had lost their lives in the incident.
At first, factory owner Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his two sons, a general manager, and four gatekeepers were charged for their alleged negligence leading to the fire. However, in February 2015, a joint investigation team (JIT) report submitted to Sindh High Court (SHC) revealed that the arson occurred after its owners didn’t pay Rs250 million ‘protection money’, according to Pakistan Rangers Sindh.
In March 2016, police said that a new case should be registered under the anti-terrorism law as this was a planned attack. They named Hammad Siddiqui, his alleged frontman Abdul Rehman alias Bhola, businessmen brothers Ali Hasan Qadri and Umer Hasan Qadri, Dr Abdul Sattar, Iqbal Adeeb Khanum, Zubair alias Charya and others as accused in their report.
In a supplementary investigation report, which was submitted in August 2016, they only charged Hammad, Rehman and their three to four unknown accomplices.
In December 2016, Abdul Rehman alias Bhola was arrested in Bangkok through Interpol and brought back to the country. He recorded his claimed confession before a judicial magistrate, and in April 2017, police filed a supplementary charge sheet against Rehman.
According to the confessional statement, he said that the Zubair alias Charya, and others, set the factory on fire on the command of Hammad Siddiqui due to no payment of protection money.
Furthermore, Dr Sattar and Khanum Qadri have been charged with using the money allegedly extorted from the factory owners on the pretext of compensation for the victims’ families while the gatekeepers have been booked for allegedly closing the exit points.
Ten accused — then-provincial minister for commerce and industries Rauf Siddiqui, MQM’s then Badia 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 ill-fated industrial unit’s four gatekeepers — Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad — have been charged with setting ablaze the factory.
Hammad and businessman Ali Hasan Qadri have been declared proclaimed offenders in the case as both are reportedly in hiding abroad.
The ATC-VII judge, conducting the trial in the central prison judicial complex, is expected to close the trial and announce his verdict in the matter as the evidence and testimonies of the prosecution witnesses, statements of the accused, and final arguments from the special pubic prosecutor and defence counsel for the accused have nearly been completed.
On the last hearing, prosecutor Shaikh rebutted the final arguments advanced by advocate M T Khan and Mansoor Akhtar, defence counsel for Zubair, alias Chariya, and Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola, respectively.
The counsel for both the accused and others, including MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui, in their final arguments, had denied the allegations levelled by the prosecution against their clients, claiming innocence on the part of their clients and pleaded to acquit them.
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 persons have denied the allegations levelled by the prosecution, which is led by the Rangers instead of police.