KARACHI: For the past seven years, the Baldia factory fire incident has remained etched in the collective memory of Karachi's citizens as a brutal example of the callousness of industrialists and the sheer disregard for labour rights and safety protocols.
The screams of the over 250 people, who were burned alive, and the wails of their families for justice may echo for times to come, but the harrowing details uncovered during the hearings of the case in the anti-terrorism court tell a story of sheer brutality, greed and criminal enterprise, involving people from the top tier of government to the militant wing of a political party that had the city in a literal chokehold through its network of henchmen and hit men.
On Thursday, the factory owner, Arshad Bhaila, recorded his statement via video link from the Pakistani embassy in Dubai. Addressing the ATC-VII via Skype, Bhaila revealed alarming details of a nexus between the then Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad Khan, former Citizens Police Liaison Committee chief Ahmed Chinoy and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leadership.
Beginning of the end
According to Bhaila, it all started when they appointed a man identified as Mansoor as the factory manager in 2004. That same year, they started paying extortion to the MQM, he told the court, adding that the amount given to the MQM varied between Rs1.5 million to Rs2.5 million per month. Bhaila said that Mansoor had settled the amount with the MQM and had justified to the owners that they had to keep the party satisfied if they wished to operate in Karachi. It was Mansoor who used to transfer the money to the MQM, said Bhaila.
In 2012, Bhaila was informed that Rehman Bhola had demanded Rs250 million on the orders of MQM's coordination committee chief, Hammad Siddiqi. "I asked Mansoor to settle the issue by paying Rs10 million, but Rehman Bhola insisted we pay the Rs250 million or take the MQM as partners," Bhaila told the court.
It was at this point that Bhaila thought of shifting the factory to Bangladesh. "It was the first time in my life that I visited Bangladesh with my brother and Mansoor and stayed there for three months," he told the court.
Back in Pakistan, Bhaila recalled, he was leaving the factory premises on the evening of September 11, 2012, when the accountant had informed him that a fire had erupted in the factory. "I had never seen a fire of this magnitude in my life," said Bhaila. He called the fire department and his relatives. The fire department staff reached the site after almost an hour but they didn't have the equipment or water to extinguish the blaze, he recalled. "I offered the fire department staff to use the water from the factory's hydrant but they refused it. They said 'let us do our job'," he told the court.
Meanwhile, as the factory burned, Bhaila said he was informed that Zubair Charya was casually sitting in the canteen with his friends, who did not even work at the site.
In the aftermath of the blaze which claimed the lives of over 250 workers, Bhaila said that they requested the commission to conduct a forensic analysis and that they would be willing to pay the expenses for it, but the request was rejected. "We kept providing rations and financial assistance to the affected families for three years," he told the court.
Meanwhile, the Bhailas sought the services of Advocate Naimatullah Randhawa for the case. The advocate appeared in a few hearings but he was also murdered some time after.
In 2013, the owners' uncle was kidnapped from SITE Area and was kept detained for 70 days. "Former CPLC chief Ahmed Chinoy was looking into this matter himself and he told us to settle the affairs with the kidnappers," said Bhaila. His uncle was released on the payment of a heavy amount in ransom.
Until this point, the Bhailas were living in Karachi. In 2015, however, after the Rangers submitted the JIT report in the Sindh High Court, which established foul play and arson in the incident, the Bhailas decided to move to Dubai with their families.
On September 13, Chinoy, who was still the CPLC chief, contacted the Bhailas through their relatives, advising them to hand themselves over to the police at the Governor's House. "The message was sent from the Governor's House through Ahmed Chinoy," Bhaila told the court.
When they finally managed to secure bail, the MQM started pressurising them again. "We decided to settle the affairs through the MQM," said Bhaila, adding that they transferred Rs59.8 million in the account number provided by a man identified as Ali Qadri.
When they asked Qadri about the date for the distribution of funds among the affected families, there was no response. Yet again, then Governor Ishratul Ebad sent a message through Chinoy, directing them to pay Rs500,000 through the MQM's platform to each of the victims' families if they wanted the issue to subside. Meanwhile, former MNA Salman Mujahid Baloch had met the Bhailas in prison and advised them to hire him as their counsel.
Hit men inside
During the hearing, Bhaila also revealed that Mansoor had appointed Zubair Charya in the finishing department of the factory in 2005. Charya was a close friend of Majid Baig, a younger brother of MQM's Baldia Town sector in-charge Asghar Baig. At this point, the manager, Mansoor, was paying Rs1.5 million per month to the MQM.
In the beginning of 2012, Arshad Bhaila's brother, Shahid, met sector in-charge Asghar Baig in Mansoor's office. The sector in-charge told him that they would have to increase the extortion amount manifold. On July 12, 2012, Rehman Bhola replaced Asghar Baig as the sector in-charge of Baldia Town. "One day, when we were leaving the factory, Rehman Bhola stopped us and threatened us to pay Rs250 million and contact Hammad Siddiqi," Bhaila told the court. "We kept using alternative routes and switching cars to visit the factory," he added.
Hours after the factory was set on fire, Chinoy sent a message to the Bhailas through their relatives that it wasn't safe for them to stay in their homes or visit the factory. "MQM workers took the control of the factory after we left and didn't let anyone in," Bhaila recalled. "Our names were included in ECL within 24 hours," he added.
A case was filed against the Bhailas and they were presented as the real culprits. "We acquired bail through a Larkana court and became part of the police investigation," said Bhaila.
After the statement, an identification parade was also carried out through Skype on the court's orders. Arshad Baila identified all the accused, including Rehman Bhola, Zubair Charya and others, with the exception of two accused. When asked how he knew Rauf Siddiqui, Bhaila said he knew of him through the media.
The counsels of the accused completed the cross-questioning over the witness' statement.
The court summoned the IO of the case, SSP Sajid Sadozai, for his statement at the next hearing and adjourned the hearing till September 21.