KARACHI: Seven years after the deadly fire that killed more than 250 workers in a Baldia garment factory, an owner of the industrial unit identified a Muttahida Qaumi Movement lawmaker and six others as accused persons, who allegedly planned and set fire to their business over non-payment of ‘protection money’.
While recording his statement from the Pakistan consulate in Dubai through a video link, Arshad Bhaila deposed before an antiterrorism court that the fire in their factory in which over 250 workers perished was an act of terrorism intentionally carried out by the accused persons on the instructions of the MQM leadership.
In July, the trial court had allowed an application moved by Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila through their counsel Afaq Ahmed pleading to the court to record their testimonies from the Gulf state through a video link citing purported threats to their lives in the country.
Says Hammad Siddiqui had asked them to pay Rs250m and 50pc ‘share’ in the factory
On Thursday, the ATC-VII judge, who is conducting trial in the judicial complex inside the central prison, took up the matter to record their statements, when the special public prosecutor moved an application stating that the prosecution had given up witness Shahid and sought to record the statement of his brother Arshad.
Two detained accused — then sector in-charge Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola, and M. Zubair, alias Chariya — were produced from prison. The MQM lawmaker, the then provincial minister for industries, Rauf Siddiqui, gatekeepers of the factory Shahrukh Latif, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Ali Mohammad appeared on bail.
Hyderabad-based business persons — Ali Hasan Qadri and Dr Abdul Sattar Khan — who have been booked for purportedly using Rs50.9m allegedly extorted from the factory owners on the pretext of compensation for the victims, also appeared on bail.
At the outset, the judge put the accused persons before witness Arshad Bhaila for the purpose of identification through the video link.
The witness rightly picked out Abdul Rehman Bhola, Zubair Chariya and the four factory gatekeepers as the accused persons. However, Mr Bhaila deposed that he had seen Rauf Siddiqui through the media, but neither had met him nor Qadri or Dr Abdul Sattar.
Regular ‘protection money’
The factory owner deposed that they had been paying ‘protection money’ to the MQM every month, adding that they inducted Mansoor Ahmed as the production manager in the factory, who had connections with the political party.
Mansoor Ahmed told the party that the factory owners would pay it Rs1.5m monthly, he added.
The witness further deposed that in 2005 the production manager inducted Zubair Ahmed in the factory’s finishing department, who was a friend of Majid Baig, the younger brother of then sector in-charge Asghar Baig of the MQM in Baldia Town.
The owner deposed that in 2012 the manager told him that they would have to pay more protection money and arranged a meeting with Asghar Baig, who told them that from then they would have to pay an increased amount of protection money to the MQM.
He said on July 12, 2012 Abdul Rehman, alias Bhola, replaced Asghar Baig as sector in-charge in Baldia.
The factory owner mentioned that as they were leaving their factory one day Abdul Rehman intercepted them and threatened to contact the then MQM Karachi Tanzeemi Committee head Hammad Siddiqui over the matter of protection money.
He deposed that later Bhola told them that Siddiqui had asked them to pay Rs250m and 50 per cent share in the factory.
“This stunned us,” the witness deposed, adding that subsequently he asked their manager Mansoor Ahmed to offer to settle the matter against a payment of Rs10m on their behalf.
The factory owner further deposed that due to repeated demands for money by the MQM, they decided to shift their business to Bangladesh and also visited that country in this regard.
He added that the people from the MQM started to vex them regularly due to which they even used to change their routes and vehicles while visiting their factory.
Mr Bhaila recalled that on Sept 11, 2012 a fire first broke out in the basement of the factory and then on the upper floor of the building, but nothing happened on the mezzanine floor.
He said that the fire brigade staff arrived there after a delay of 60 to 90 minutes.
The witness deposed that after the fire engulfed the factory, then head of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) Ahmed Chinoy sent a message to them through a relative that “it was not safe for them to stay at the burning factory”. Therefore, the owner said they went to a relative’s place.
The factory owner testified that soon after they left the scene, MQM workers took over the place and they did not let anyone to go inside the factory. He said within 24 hours of the incident their names were placed on the Exit Control List.
Bhaila said later a factory worker, Kashif, told them that Zubair Chariya and five unknown men were seen smoking hashish in the factory’s canteen when the fire broke out. According to Kashif, Zubair was involved in setting fire to the industrial unit, he added.
The factory owner also deposed that the police registered an FIR of the incident against them (factory owners) under pressure from then provincial minister for industries Rauf Siddiqui and the MQM leadership. “We were portrayed as villains and the real culprit was shown as a hero,” he added.
Arshad Bhaila said they obtained pre-arrest bail from the Sindh High Court’s circuit bench in Larkana and joined the investigation.
The witness said they had engaged Advocate Naimat Randhawa, who was also killed after he appeared in the court on their behalf on some dates of hearing.