Five years on, Baldia factory fire case still at pre-trial stage

13 Sep 2017 Ferado

KARACHI: As the survivors, victims’ families and rights activists on Sep 11 paid homage to the 260 workers who were killed in the Baldia factory fire on Sept 11, 2012, the case is still at the pre-trial stage before an antiterrorism court as the court has not yet indicted the suspects.

The case was fixed before ATC-VII inside the Central Prison Karachi on Sep 11 and the court provided copies of documentary evidence to the suspects as required under Section 265-C (supply of statements and documents to the accused) of the Criminal Procedure Code and fixed Sept 25 for indictment.

Meanwhile, the court also reserved its order on acquittal applications of two gatekeepers of the ill-fated industrial unit till next hearing while the trial court also received an order from the Sindh High Court, directing it to expedite the trial and submit a progress report of every hearing.

According to the prosecution, more than 250 workers were burnt alive when the multistorey garment factory building was set on fire in Baldia Town in 2012.

Initially, owner of the factory Abdul Aziz Bhaila, and his two sons, Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, a general manager and three gatekeepers were chargesheeted for their alleged negligence.

However, the case took a turn in February 2015 when Rangers submitted a joint investigation team (JIT) report in the Sindh High Court, which revealed that the factory was set on fire after its owners failed to pay ‘protection money’. Subsequently, the re-investigation of the case was ordered in March 2015 through a JIT.

In March last year, the police through a progress report informed the court that the factory fire was a planned terrorist act and the JIT had recommended that a new case be registered under the anti-terrorism law and proposed then chief of the MQM Karachi Tanzeemi Committee Hammad Siddiqui, his alleged frontman and then Baldia Town sector in-charge Abdul Rehman alias Bhola, Hyderabad-based businessmen brothers Ali Hasan Qadri and Umer Hasan Qadri, Dr Abdul Sattar, Zubair alias Charya and others as accused in it.

However, after a lengthy re-investigation, police filed a supplementary investigation report in August last year in which they only chargesheeted Hammad Siddiqui, Abdul Rehman and their three to four unknown accomplices and did not send the 13 other suspects, including those proposed by the JIT, for trial.

But the court had put all discharged men in the list of the accused by observing that the owners/manager had ordered the closure of the gates while others abetted the crime one way or another by extorting money on the pretext of distributing it among the victim families. Later, the court recalled its order regarding the inclusion of the owners as accused as the prosecution said they were the key witnesses of the case.

In December last year, Abdul Rehman alias Bhola was brought back after his arrest in Bangkok through Interpol, and he recorded his confessional statement before a judicial magistrate and stated that he, with Zubair alias Charya and others, set the factory ablaze on the instructions of Hammad Siddiqui as the factory owners had refused to pay the demanded protection money and ‘partnership’ in the factory.

In April, police filed a supplementary charge sheet against Abdul Rehman and did not name the MQM lawmaker Rauf Siddiqui as accused for want of sufficient evidence.

The suspect also said in his confession that after the incident Rauf Siddiqui allegedly got a case registered against the owners of the industrial unit and then the suspect said that he came to know that Rauf and Hammad had received Rs40 million to Rs50m from the owners to tone down the case against them, it added.

The supplementary report further said that sufficient evidence was not found against the MQM MPA during the investigation, adding that he joined the investigation and denied all allegations.

The IO also enlisted Qadri brothers, Zubair, Dr Abdul Sattar Khan and Iqbal Adib Khanum as accused in the supplementary charge sheet for allegedly using the money allegedly extorted from the factory owners on the pretext of compensation for victims and showed Hammad as an absconder.
Call for justice

Still hoping for justice, the survivors, victims’ families and activists on Monday paid homage to the 260 workers killed in the Baldia factory blaze five years ago.

The Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association (AEFFAA) and the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) organised a gathering outside the ill-fated factory to resolve that their struggle for justice would continue.

The workers stressed that the government take measures to ensure health and safety at factories so that others were not killed the way their loved ones had been.

Speakers at the gathering lamented that the state had failed to deliver justice to the victims and made a mockery of the blood of the deceased workers by relieving the factory owners of the charges.

They said there was no emergency exit at the factory and the only gate used for movement was locked after the fire broke out. The absence of fire alarms, they added, also multiplied the casualties.

“Unfortunately,” said Saeeda Khatoon, “the government and other authorities have not learnt any lesson from the tragedy; as we speak, most factories are similarly dangerous as Ali Enterprises was then.”

Commenting on the Sindh government announcement to commemorate September 11 as health and safety day, they said until reforms were made to make factories better and secure workplaces, nothing could improve.
Minister’s pledge

Sindh Labour Minister Nasir Shah claimed the Pakistan Peoples Party had always been with the victims of the incident and would rehabilitate the families for which “all possible measures would be taken”.

He said a committee was being constituted to look into the issues. He said no influential person would be spared and culprits involved in the tragedy would be dealt with severely.

He promised that the facilities and assistance by SESSI/EOBI, which the speakers indicated were stalled, would continue.

He said the labour ministry had prepared a draft legislation to protect workers and safeguard their rights at the workplace to prevent such incidents in future.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) country director Ingrid Christensen paid tribute to the victims and said the ILO was continuously working to protect workers and prevent such incidents in Pakistan and at the international level. “This is a wake-up call for all of us to take positive measures and implement laws at workplace.”

Secretary for labour Rasheed Solangi highlighted the salient features of the Safety Occupational and Health Bill, which would be passed by the Sindh Assembly “very soon”.

Speakers at a seminar said international and local brands and their manufacturers were directly responsible for such accidents in factories.

“All of them are responsible for violating labour laws,” said Nasir Mansoor, deputy secretary general of the NTUF, adding that workers had been stripped of their rights and were being used as modern slaves.

The speakers said most factories did not allow workers to form unions, forced them to work beyond eight-hour shifts, did not issue them contracts nor registered them with the social security and pension institutions.

The AEFFAA representatives said the German company KiK, which procured most products made at Ali Enterprise, had paid $5.15 million to the ILO after reaching an agreement with IndustriALL Global Union and Clean Clothes Campaign in Geneva last year.

They criticised and rejected the ILO proposal to pay them the compensation in instalments as low as Rs2,800 a month. They termed it a conspiracy to create division among the victims’ families and they would not succumb to it.

Describing the ordeal faced by the affected families, they said most parents were without any support after the EOBI stopped paying them pension on behalf of their children. Addressing the government, they said: “What [should] the parents do now?”

They demanded the ILO pay the families lump sum amounts, the EOBI must issue parents the pension their whole life, a workers’ training centre be built on the site of the factory, proper mechanism of labour inspection at factories must be implemented, gratuity and group insurance cases pending with the commissioner must be decided immediately; and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, real estate tycoon Malik Riaz and Sindh government must fulfil the promises of compensation they had made to the victims.
Vigil held

The Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) organised a candlelight vigil outside the Karachi Press Club in remembrance of the Baldia factory fire victims in which representatives of civil society organisations, trade unions and rights activists took part.

The participants were carrying banners and placards demanding provision of occupational health and safety facilities in factories and arrest of the culprits behind the country’s worst industrial disaster.