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September 20, 2019

Baldia factory fire case: Owner says ex-governor demanded Rs120million as settlement

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September 20, 2019

KARACHI: Arshad Bhaila, owner and director of the Baldia factory in his explosive testimony to the ATC on Thursday, said former Sindh governor Ishratul Ibad forced him through former Citizen-Police Liaison Committee chief Ahmed Chinoy to pay over Rs120 million as compensation to the victim families from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's platform to ‘settle’ the issue and warned of dire consequences if he did not.

Two-hundred-and-sixty people were killed and dozens injured in the blaze at the Ali Enterprises garments factory in Baldia Town on September 12, 2012. Among the dead 17 were charred beyond recognition and await identification despite passage of seven years. Subsequent investigations had held some MQM activists responsible for the arson following refusal by the factory owners to pay hefty extortion to the once ruling party of Karachi.

At one point things got so bad for the Arshad Bhaila that he along with his family had to flee from Pakistan due to security concerns. Bhaila got his testimony recorded to the ATC-7 judge through Skype from the Pakistan Embassy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He said he had to leave the country after Rizwan Qureshi, an alleged target killer of the MQM in February 2015 disclosed that the factory tragedy was the result of an arson attack. “We started feeling unsafe here [the JIT report containing Qureshi’s statement was submitted to the Sindh High Court],” he told the judge, saying his family is already under pressure of the MQM to stay tight lipped over the incident. The factory owner also deposed to the ATC that the MQM had been taking extortion money from the factory since 2004.

Only Abdul Rehman alias Bhola and Zubair alias Charya are in jail while the rest of the accused are out on bails. One key suspect, the then incharge of MQM’s Karachi Tanzimi Committee Hammad Siddiqui, is still absconding. Prosecution considers him to be the mastermind of the extortion and arson that perished 260 labourers leaving the families scarred forever. Ten suspects are currently facing the trial, including the then MQM’s industries and commerce minister Rauf Siddiqui, local office bearers Abdul Rehman alias Bhola, Zubair alias Charya, factory employees Shahrukh, Fazal Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood, Ali Muhammad and Hyderabad-based businesspersons Umar , Ali and their mother Khanum. Arshad also identified all the accused except two.

Arshad testified that the MQM used to take Rs1.5 million to Rs2.5 million from the factory as monthly extortion but in 2012 Hammad Siddiqui through Rehman alias Bhola demanded Rs250 million or partnership in the business as a one time settlement. He said the factory manager Muhammad Mansoor who looked after payment of the extortion money. “I asked Mansoor to negotiate the amount for Rs10 million,” he deposed but then didn't budge. He said on the evening of September 11, 2012 when he was leaving his office for home his accountant informed him of the huge blaze at the factory. “I had never seen fire of such a huge magnitude in my life. It was so intense that it engulfed the whole of the [two-storey] factory within a short passage time,” he said and added a fire tender arrived half-an-hour late without sufficient water and equipment and handled the whole affair very casually despite people being trapped in the fire. “I offered the fire brigade staff to use water from my nearby hydrant but they refused and told me to ‘let us do our work’,” he told the judge. On the site, Bhaila deposed he was told that those who allegedly started the fire, including Zubair, were present at the scene and were quite at ease watching the whole tragic episode unfold before them. Bhaila said he felt so powerless and miserable at that time but could do nothing because the MQM was so powerful then.

Continuing with the explosive testimony before the ATC, Bhaila said the investigation process was skewed and cumbersome from the start. He said he offered the commission probing into the fire to conduct forensic examination into the blaze at his expense but they refused. He informed the court that his lawyer Advocate Naimat Ali Randhawa was also murdered. Out of empathy our family kept providing monthly ration and financial aid to the families of the victims for three years. This was not all. “In June 2013, my uncle was kidnapped by some people in the SITE area. They held him hostage for around 70 days. It was then that the CPLC chief Ahmed Chinoy intervened and asked us to settle the matter with the kidnappers and pay them the money,” he told the court. "We had no option but to pay heavy ransom for his release," Arshad Bhaila told the court in his sworn testimony. Bhaila told the ATC judge that due to the MQM's coercion he pondered shifting business to Bangladesh where he stayed for three months along with his brother Shahid Bhaila and manager to explore setting up a garments factory there. “It was the first time in my life that I had to go to a foreign country to set up a business,” he said.

But the things started to get far worse from there. Arshad deposed to the ATC two days after the blaze, Ahmad Chinoy, who was the CPLC chief at the time, communicated to him a message from the Governor House. Ishratul Ibad was the governor then. Chinoy told me and my brother to surrender to the police, he said. During detention a former MQM MNA Salman Mujahid Baloch visited him in the prison and offered his services to settle the issue through the MQM. Following our release on bail the torment continued. “The MQM kept subjecting our family to intense pressure forcing us to pay money to settle the case through them. ” He said once again Chinoy turned up to deliver Governor Ishratul Ibad's message that ‘if you want to defuse the crisis then pay each of the victim Rs500,000 through the MQM totaling Rs 129 million, which will be paid to the heirs of the victims. With no where to turn for help we had to negotiate with the MQM to reduce the amount to Rs 59.8 million.

To prove his contention, Bhaila showed receipts of transferring Rs59.8 million to Ali Qadri’s account who is said to be a close associate of a top MQM leader. “I repeatedly asked Ali to tell me when the amount would be distributed but he never did,” the owner told the ATC in his testimony. Following the testimony the ATC adjourned the hearing till September 21.

Rejecting the allegations made in the testimony, sources quoting former Sindh governor Ishratul Ibad termed it fabrication. Ibad was quoted saying that as the governor he had nothing to do with the party organisational affairs. He also said he had nothing to do with the Baldia fire episode, never took part in any such action nor was part of any controversy.

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