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KARACHI: An Anti-terrorism court has awarded the death sentence to MQM’s then Baldia Town sector in-charge Abdul Rehman alias Rehman Bhola and Zubair alias Charya in the high-profile Baldia factory fire case, almost eight years after the terrifying industrial blaze. The court has also awarded life sentences to four factory staff members for facilitating the culprits. MQM leader and the then-provincial minister for commerce and industries Rauf Siddiqui and three others have been acquitted due to a lack of proof against them.

A total of ten accused were tried in the court including Rauf Siddiqui, Rehman Bhola, Zubair Charya, Hyderabad-based businessmen Dr Abdul Sattar Khan, Umar Hasan Qadri, Iqbal Adeeb Khanum and the industrial unit’s four gatekeepers namely Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad.

The court had reserved its verdict on September 2 as 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 incident:

The Baldia Town factory fire is probably the goriest incident in the violent history of Karachi. 259 innocent workers, men, and women were burnt alive when the multi-story Ali Enterprises garment factory was set on fire in Baldia Town on September 11, 2012. The majority of the dead were under the age of 30.

The factory was set ablaze alledegely on the instructions of the then chief of MQM’s Karachi Tanzeemi Committee, Hammad Siddiqui, because the factory owners refused to pay Rs250 milliions as 'extortion money'.

Initial investigations:

The initial investigation of the case was completed by inspector Chowdhary Zafar Iqbal, who visited the factor immediately after the fire, prepared a memo of inspection, and issued letters to different departments for determining the cause of the fire. During the course of the investigation, he arrested three nominated accused and issued notice to the factory owners and seized their accounts.

Change of investigation:

In September 2012, SIP Jahanzeb took over the investigation after Zafar was suspended. SIP declared the fire to be an accident "caused due to short circuits in the factor godown on the ground floor and factory owners and their employees were responsible for not taking precautionary measures which are necessary for preventing loss of lives and property in any such accidental incidents". Based on these findings, SIP built a case against factory owners and their staff. The factory owner Abdul Aziz Bhaila along with his two sons Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, a general manager, and four gatekeepers were charge-sheeted for their alleged negligence.

Formation of the JIT:

In February 2015, the National Crisis Management Cell constituted a joint investigation team (JIT) to re-investigate the Baldia Town factory fire. The committee comprised 7 members with representatives from different state institutes including Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI), and Intelligence Bureau (IB). The committee was asked to submit their findings within a month.

The JIT report:

The joint investigation team (JIT) formed to re-investigate the Baldia town factory fire had declared the incident an act of terrorism. The fire was started when owners of Ali Enterprise (Baldia factory) refused to Rs. 200 million as extortion money, report found out.

"In view of the foregoing discussion, technical reports, and eyewitnesses accounts the JIT is of the unanimous opinion that the incident was not an accidental one. Rather it was a terrorist and sabotage human activity that might have been caused by use of some chemical accelerant."

The JIT after holding six sessions in the factory, carefully examining the ruins, and collecting accounts of multiple eyewitnesses including the employees of the factory, has nullified the previous investigations and concluded that the fire wasn't an accident but a deliberate act of terrorism. According to the report, the fire was unnatural and had multiple origins simultaneously as per forensic reports. The report also declared refusal to pay extortion money to MQM as a motive for this terror activity.

The JIT, to reach the final conclusion, also took into account the recommendations and findings of the Punjab Forensic Science Agency and International Centre for Chemical and Biological Science, University of Karachi. Both these reports also support JIT's findings.

The report also included the testimony of accused Rizwan Qureshi in which he revealed that Hammad Sidique, an MQM party high official and in charge of the Karachi Tanzeemi Committee (KTC), demanded an amount of Rs. 200 million from the owner of Ali Enterprise through his frontman Rehman Bhola in 2012. However, the factory owner went to Asghar Baig, MQM sector in-charge of Baldia town at that time, and made him aware of the demand. Asghar Baig along with his brother Majid Baid arranged a meeting between the factory owners and Hammad Sidique. The meeting was also attended by Farooq Saleem, joint in-charge of KTC. The factory owners refused to pay the extortion money and exchanged harsh words with MQM leaders.

After this first meeting, Sidique suspended Baig and appointed Bhola as the new sector in-charge. Bhola once again asked factory owners to pay extortion money and upon their refusal "threw chemical substance which created [a] fire in the factory on 11 September 2012."

While concluding the report, JIT has recommended withdrawing the previous FIRs and filing of new FIRs under terrorism provisions and include the names of Rehman Bhola, Hamad Siddiqui, Zubair Charia, Umar Hassan Qadari, Dr. Abdul Sattar, Ali Hassan Qadri, Iqbal Abid Khanum, and four unknown persons in the new FIR.

On the issue of the owner's negligence, the JIT concluded that no factory doors were permanently shut down:

"On the issue of doors, most labors who have survived the fire have confirmed that whatever doors or exist were available were open...They have also unanimously stated that there were no doors locked."