Baldia fire case: Unless families agree, murder charges can’t be dropped, say Lawyers

Published: January 25, 2013
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Family members gathered outside the factory after the fire hoping for some good news. FILE PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

Family members gathered outside the factory after the fire hoping for some good news. FILE PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

Minister for Industries and Commerce Rauf Siddiqui addressed the media a day after the fire. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS Family members gathered outside the factory after the fire hoping for some good news. FILE PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS

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- Photo-Athar Khan-Express

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.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • NuPak
    Jan 26, 2013 - 5:21AM

    Hopefully the victims are compensated, a code of conduct the remedies for such violations are set accordingly, the violators are punished appropriately without harming the small industry or the future of employment for poor and needy.

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