In a move that is likely to baffle most and one that reeks of a cover-up, murder charges against the owners of the Baldia Town factory – the worst factory fire in the world in recent times – have been withdrawn, confirmed Minister of State for Finance Saleem Mandviwalla on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, in a meeting with the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), assured members of the business community that murder charges against the factory owners would be dropped.
However, in a late night development on Wednesday, Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad approached the premier and President Asif Ali Zardari to reconsider the decision. The governor told the media that the president had assured him that injustice will not be meted out to the victims’ families.
Moments after the telephonic conversation, Ebad contacted Sindh Inspector General Police Fayaz Leghari to continue the investigation into the case without changing the investigation officers. According to reports, Mandviwala is likely to arrive in Karachi soon to hold meetings with the business community and Sindh governor.
More than 250 people lost their lives on September 11 last year when a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Baldia Town. The case was registered under sections related to murder against the factory owners, its general manager, security guards and some government officials over negligence.
When contacted by The Express Tribune earlier, Mandviwalla, a political appointee, muddled the issue further by saying that the case itself had not been dropped as reported by a certain section of the media.
“Only section 302 has been removed from the FIR,” he said, explaining that the section was inapplicable in the case since no murder had actually been committed. However, he added that it is still legally possible for the police to make changes in the FIR if their investigation points towards ill intentions.
Talking to The Express Tribune, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) Executive Director Karamat Ali said the Prime Minister had no authority to change a case that was under trial. He maintained police cannot change the FIR without the court’s permission either and authorities needed to present an application before the court if they want to remove section 302 from the case.
“The court will hear the case on Monday (January 28), so it is too early to comment,” he added.
Meanwhile, KCCI President Muhammad Haroon Agar confirmed the chamber had approached the premier for the withdrawal of murder charges against the factory owners.
“We do not want to protect the exporter,” defended Agar, adding, “We just want the government to determine the sort of negligence that led to such a catastrophe.”
“The factory had various international security compliance certificates, including ISO 9000, which are not easy to acquire in absence of fire safety arrangements,” he maintained.
Case transferred to Orangi Town DSP
To further confuse the case, investigation itself has been transferred to the Orangi Town police deputy superintendent (DSP), The Express Tribune has learnt.
Talking to The Express Tribune, Jahanzaib Khan, the former investigating officer in the case, said he was ordered by the Investigations deputy inspector general (DIG) to transfer the case to the Orangi Town DSP.
“I am complying with orders,” he added.
According to Khan, a board headed by Investigations DIG Manzoor Mughal decided to transfer the case after hearing certain complaints. He added that if a complainant or accused party was dissatisfied with the investigation, they could request a transfer.
“No reasons have been disclosed in the letter that I have received as to why the case was being transferred,” said Khan.
“I have transferred the case with a heavy heart… all my hard work has gone into vain.”
Investigations, case property and all other things would also be handed over to the investigators concerned, he added.
However, DIG West Javed Odho denied any orders to transfer the case had been issued. (WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT BY FARHAN ZAHEER)
Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2013.