A storehouse on fire

April 29, 2018

The April 11 fire that erupted in the Maal Khana of Karachi City Court and completely destroyed the case properties of two districts, South and East, has raised some pertinent issues

A storehouse on fire

"There were huge bangs at midnight that continued for hours, there were raging flames and the entire vicinity was terrorised," said 22-year-old resident of Nanak Wara, a locality close to the City Court. The young man was an eye-witness of the April 11 incident when the fire erupted in the Maal Khana (storehouse) of Karachi City Court.

There are reports that the fire completely destroyed the case property of two districts, South and East. The Sindh Police has constituted two different teams under the supervision of DIG South Azad Khan and DIG East Zulfiqar Larik. The first team has been assigned to investigate how the fire erupted and the latter is given the task to ascertain what sort of record was destroyed.

Over the past few years, fire incidents have been reported at the City Court on three different occasions. President Karachi Bar Council Haider Imam shared that despite past experiences, "there was no fire-fighting system put in place at the City Court".

According to the police investigation, the fire broke at 1:30am, the police guards smelled the smoke at 2:30am. The Fire Department report says, "The first call was received at 2:31am, initially two fire tenders were dispatched to City Court at 2:33 where they reached at 2:38am."

One official of the Fire Department claimed that the police guards did not open the gate of the storage room and asked to wait for the senior police officers to reach the spot. It took almost 40 minutes to open the door; meanwhile, the blaze had become uncontrollable.

A top official of Karachi Police disclosed, "The fire tenders were not equipped to extinguish such level of fire and that is why firefighting foam of Rs0.5 million was purchased from the market, handed over to the fire department and then the fire was doused."

It was learnt that the Police department bought the foam in the morning from the market on credit. However, a member of the team of Fire department that participated in the operation told on condition of anonymity that "it was an A-class fire, it doesn’t require foam to extinguish nor did we use it".

Sindh sought the help of Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA) for the investigation of the fire incident. The team from Punjab reached the very same day, started the investigation, collected the sample and left for Lahore. The officials probing the incident have received the report from PFSA which failed to identify the real cause of the fire. Earlier, the Fire Department of Sindh was also indecisive about the actual reason of the blaze.

It is not the first such incident in Karachi. The Fire Department regularly receives dozens of complaints. The Sindh Police formerly announced the formation of Forensic Division in 2009. The unit has the expertise of investigating six various areas including examination of fire arms (ballistic), finger printing, digital forensic, questioned documents examination and vehicle examination system. Next month, an explosive lab is being inaugurated but it is a pity that the province has no lab, division or unit to investigate fire-related incidents.

"There are some very high-profile cases including Uzair Baloch, Arshad Pappu killing and Shahzeb murder case whose case properties have been burnt in the Maal Khana fire".

Karachi encountered the worst fire accident in the history of Pakistan when more than 250 people were burned alive inside the garment factory of Baldia Town on September 11, 2012. The local administration had requested Special Investigation Group (SIG) of Federal Investigation Agency to probe the Baldia matter.

Talking to TNS, DIG South Azad Khan ruled out the initial possibility of any terror activity behind the fire. "The CCTV video shows that the fire erupted where the explosives were kept, and no one was found inside the storehouse at that time," said DIG Khan.

The premises was being used as the storehouse since 1910. Initially it was the barracks of policemen.

The recent fire mainly impacted the record of District South and East. The police department is recovering details of case property from Register no 19 and 21 (road certificate) that are kept in every police station. TNS investigation shows there are over 8,000 under-trial cases in both the districts since 2007.

Following the April 11 incident, there are serious apprehensions about the possible acquittals and bails of criminals including gang war members. A senior police official linked to the investigation branch of South region said, "We are very much concerned about the fallout of this incident as there are some very high-profile cases including Uzair Baloch, Arshad Pappu killing and Shahzeb murder case whose case properties have been burnt in the Maal Khana fire".

The section 516-A of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1898 elaborates about the custody and disposal of property pending trial in certain cases. It says, "When any property regarding which any offence appears to have been committed, or which appears to have been used for the commission of any offence is produced before any Criminal Court during any inquiry or trial, the Court may make such order as it thinks fit for the proper custody of such property pending the conclusion of the inquiry or trial, and, if the property is subject to speedy or natural decay, may, after recording such evidence as it thinks necessary, order it to be sold or otherwise disposed off."

The Karachi Police is consulting with the judiciary to device a mechanism to cope up with the recent crisis, a senior police official associated with ongoing exercise told TNS, adding, "By next week, the proposal will be submitted before the judiciary".

Former Prosecutor General of Sindh Shahadat Awan said, "If the case property has been destroyed, its record is always available. In the current scenario, it will vary from case to case and will also depend on what stage the case proceedings are at. It will hurt the prosecution but not completely."

Another prominent criminal lawyer, Shaukat Hayat is not willing to buy this argument and says the situation will definitely benefit criminals. "Case property is the basis of every case and if the case property is not available, how will the case proceed. Today, if a judge accepts documentary evidence of case property, it will become a precedent and will affect the entire legal system."

Karachi Police will write a letter to the concerned government department and will demand to establish purpose-built storehouses at every court and police stations. They will further demand that purpose-built vehicles be provided to every district to transport such explosive material. The metropolitan police will suggest to amend section 516-A of CrPC too because it bounds the authorities to keep the entire case property intact till the disposal of the case and that includes explosive material as well.

A storehouse on fire