Looking for a way out?: SHC reserves order on Baldia factory owners’ bail plea

Published: February 1, 2013
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Shahid Bhaila (left) and Arshad Bhaila (right), owners of the ill-fated factory in Baldia, returning from a court hearing. PHOTO: FILE

Shahid Bhaila (left) and Arshad Bhaila (right), owners of the ill-fated factory in Baldia, returning from a court hearing. PHOTO: FILE

KARACHI: The Sindh High Court (SHC) reserved its verdict on Monday on bail applications filed by the owners and employees of the Baldia factory, where the country’s worst industrial disaster took place.

Abdul Aziz Bhaila, his sons, Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila, are among the factory managers and government officials, who are facing charges of murder, criminal negligence and common intention. Nearly 259 workers were killed when Ali Enterprises caught fire on September 11, last year.

The police arrested Arshad and Bhaila after a sessions court rejected their pre-arrest bail applications on October 6, 2012. Their ailing father, Abdul Aziz Bhaila, was granted bail due to his old age.

Opposing their bail applications, special public prosecutor Shazia Hanjrah said there was strong evidence available on record to prove their role in the alleged offence. “There is a list of 830 witnesses of the tragic incident,” she said. “A number of witnesses, including the workers of Ali Enterprises and its adjoining industrial units, have clearly stated that the factory owners had ordered their watchmen to lock up all the doors after the fire broke out.”

The prosecutor said the locked doors, the lack of fire-fighting equipment and flawed structure of the building are major reasons behind the high death toll. “The factory was built like a jail,” she claimed, as she showed several photos taken by the investigators that showed broken iron doors with locks still hanging with them. These doors are still in police custody, she added. The SA-8000 certification of Ali Enterprises was also disputed.

Faisal Siddiqui, a lawyer who was allowed by the court to render assistance in the proceedings, also opposed the murder charges being dropped against the factory owners. This case falls under the third category prescribed in section 300 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which provides any act of gross criminal negligence also be treated as an offence, he explained.

Government officials, including labour director Zahid Gulzar Shaikh, SITE managing director Rashid Ahmed Solangi, Civil Defence additional controller Ghulam Akbar and Karachi Region-II electric inspector Amjad Ali Mahesar, are also liable to be tried, he added.

Meanwhile, defense lawyer Amir Raza Naqvi said that none of the witnesses had nominated any of the four arrested men of murder. The investigation officer Jahanzeb also said there was not enough evidence to charge the owners with murder. “If, anyone can prove murder charge, I’ll let him cut my throat.”  Justice Ghulam Sarwar Korai reserved his verdict that will be announced later.

Notice on PM’s interference

On Monday, the SHC issued notice to the principle secretary to the prime minister and heads of various provincial departments, including labour, police, civil defence, SITE and owners of the Baldia garment factory on a petition alleging the premier of interfering in the trial proceedings.

Several NGOs had gone to court on Saturday against Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf for his alleged interference. They also asked the court to order conversion of the factory into a rehabilitation centre for the victims’ families. The division bench headed by Justice Maqbool Baqir issued notices to the respondents to file their respective comments by February 14.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2013.

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