There are only two ways that premeditated murder charges can be dropped against the owners of the Baldia garment factory that was gutted in Pakistan’s worst industrial fire.
Either the families of the victims can agree to it or the prosecution must successfully prove there isn’t enough evidence to support it. The prime minister’s surprising order to drop the charges, however, holds no legal water, say legal experts.
On September 11, last year, at least 259 workers were trapped and burnt to death in the multi-storey Ali Enterprises that was said to be ISO-9000 certified. Owner Abdul Aziz Bhaila and his two sons Arshad and Shahid are facing charges of murder, criminal negligence and common intent. Also booked in the case were five factory employees and four government officials.
The Sindh High Court took up the case on its own the very next day and the wheels started turning. Four months on the trial is set to open but the prosecution has taken a U-turn based on the investigator’s suggestion that the key charge of premeditated murder be dropped.
Shahida Parveen struggles to come to terms with the loss of her husband. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS
The change of heart has been attributed to instructions recently given by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to the Sindh government to clear the allegations of intentional murder – an offence that carries a minimum sentence of life imprisonment and maximum of the death sentence.
If this happens, the case would die, argues lawyer Faisal Siddiqui, who is representing workers and human rights groups who asked for an independent judicial inquiry. “The main offence in the FIR is premeditated murder, which the prosecution has recommended to be removed at [this] important stage when the trial is about to begin,” he said. “The PM had recently assured the Karachi chamber of commerce office bearers that the Bhailas would be cleared of the murder charge. He also directed the Sindh chief secretary to solve the matter. [This is why] the prosecution has taken a different stance.”
Issuing these instructions, however, is tantamount to the Executive interfering with the Judiciary. “The premier is the chief executive, who does not enjoy judicial authority,” stressed Muhammad Ilyas Khan, a lawyer specialising in criminal cases.
For him, the PM’s instructions or suggestions, if any, in this case have no legal value. And as for any authority putting on any pressure, that also qualifies as interference. “In Islamic law, the authority of the State is nothing,” Khan said. “It is only the aggrieved person or party with whose consent the charge or case can be taken back.”
This in enshrined in the Code of Criminal Procedure. According to former additional advocate general Habib Ahmed, while Section 494 says that the federal and provincial governments may take back any case they can’t drop the important murder charge unless a victim’s heirs agree. “In a murder case the survivors or legal heirs of the victim are more important than any other party,” he said. “The investigation officer’s recommendation without their consent is not acceptable.”
All of this talk of dropping the murder charge might just be a storm in a teacup as the court has not made any changes. Indeed, Special Public Prosecutor Shahzia Hanjrah, who is assisting the trial court, has ruled out the possibility of the men going scot-free.
“The trial is about to begin,” she said. “So taking back the allegation at this stage seems impossible.”
TIMELINE OF A TRAGEDY
Sep 11, 2012
Fire erupts in the Baldia factory
Sep 11, 2012
Case registered by SHO Muhammad Nawaz
Sep 11, 2012
Investigating officer Ch. Zafar Iqbal collects evidence, protective bail for owners follows soon after
Sep 20, 2012
Investigations handed over to Jahanzaib Khan. Three more suspects arrested soon after
Sep 21, 2012
Protective bail extended by the LHC Rawalpindi bench
Jan 5, 2013
Police submit supplementary charge sheet to drop pre-meditated murder charges that were dropped on Jan 23
Dec 14, 2012
Judicial magistrate’s court issues warrants against absconder Shahrukh and four govt officials
Nov 22, 2012
A judge refuses to hear Bhaila’s bail plea
Nov 17, 2012
Labour director gets pre-arrest bail
Oct 24, 2012
Court extends deadline for final list of charges to Nov 2
Oct 6, 2012
Bail granted to Abdul Aziz Bhaila on medical grounds, bail of other suspects denied. Factory owners and manager sent on remand
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2013.