KARACHI: The Baldia factory fire’s investigation took a turn on Tuesday when two of the 301 witnesses testified against the police in a district and sessions court, saying that their previous statements were “forced”.
On September 11, Karachi saw one of its worst industrial fires at Ali Enterprises in which 258 workers were burnt or suffocated to death.
According to the two witnesses, Muhammad Zubair and Abdul Majeed, they were pressured by the police to say that the factory doors were closed when the fire started. They informed the court on Tuesday that the doors were open and that is how some of the workers managed to escape as there was no other way out.
Zubair, supervisor of the finishing department in Ali Enterprises, stated before the court that he was present on his floor when the fire started and informed the labourers about it.
“I started evacuating my floor through the stairs as soon as I learnt about the fire,” he said. “Around 100 women and 80 men escaped through the main gate.”
Zubair alleged that he was tortured in police custody for the last 22 days and needed protection for himself and his family. “My life is in danger and I need protection,” he urged the judge.
The second witness, Majeed, chief accountant at the factory, had similar complaints about the police. “I have been in police custody since September 14 and have been threatened throughout,” said Majeed while asking for protection from the court.
Amir Mansoob Qureshi, who is the counsel for the factory owners Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his son Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, said that the witnesses were tortured in police custody and were threatened to give statements.
“The witnesses have stated before the judge that the factory gates were not locked,” Qureshi told the media outside court. He added that some people came out of the factory through the doors but others were stuck inside because of the fire’s intensity.
Qureshi requested for copies of the witnesses’ statements recorded by the police and for the court to keep his clients in a jail with better facilities.
Investigating Officer Jahanzaib Khan told The Express Tribune that the witnesses were not in police custody so there was no question of torturing them. Khan said that they were only called in to record their statements on September 24. “I have taken an oath and will remain fair throughout the trial,” said Khan. “This involves 259 families who lost their loved ones.”
The statements were recorded before the 2nd Civil Judge and Judicial Magistrate, West, Sohail Ahmed Mashori, who directed SITE B police station’s SHO to provide protection to the witnesses.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2012.