Seven years after the destructive fire that claimed the lives of over 250 workers in a Baldia garment factory, the owner of the factory has accused a Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) lawmaker, Rauf Siddiqui and six others for allegedly orchestrating and setting fire to their industrial unit after they failed to payments of “protection money.”
Arshad Bhaila, the owner of the industrial united, recorded his statement via video link from the Pakistani consulate in Dubai, testifying before an anti-terrorism court that the fire in their factory, which killed over 250 workers, is an intentional act of terrorism carried out by the accused on the directives of the MQM leadership.
In the annals of Pakistan’s sordid social and political history involving labour, nothing probably comes close to the cruelty inflicted in the Baldia factory fire that burnt to death some 260 poor workers in 2012 https://t.co/K3eHRj3QLT
— Hasan Zaidi (@hyzaidi) September 20, 2019
Earlier in July, Arshad Bhaila and Shahid Bhaila submitted an application in the trial court through their counsel Afaq Ahmed, urging the court to record their testimonies from Dubai via a video link, citing threats to their life if they return to Pakistan.
MQM Lawmaker Accused
On Thursday, an Anti-Terrorism Court-VII judge, who is presiding over the trial in a judicial complex within the central prison, addressed the matter of recording their statements after a special public prosecutor submitted an application that the prosecution has cast aside witness Shahid, and seeks to record the testimony of his brother, Arshad.
The two accused who have been detained are former sector-in charge Abdul Rehman, known as Bhola, and M. Zubair, known as Chariya, were called from prison. The MQM lawmaker, the former provincial minister for Industries, Rauf Siddiqui appeared on bail, alongside the gatekeepers of the factory, Fazal Ahmed, Ali Mohammad, Arshad Mehmood, and Shahrukh Latif.
The factory owner further testified that due to the repetitive demands for protection money made by the MQM leadership, they decided to relocate their business operations to Bangladesh
Ali Hasan Qadri and Dr. Abdul Sattar Khan, businessmen based in Hyderabad, who had been booked for using the Rs50.0m sum allegedly extorted from the factory owners under the pretext of compensation for the fire victims, also appeared in court on bail.
The judge directed the key witness, factory owner Arshad Bhaila to identify the accused person through video link. The witness correctly identified Zubair Chariya, Abdul Rehman Bhola, and four of the other factory gatekeepers as the accused. However, Arshad Bhaila testified that he had only seen MQM lawmaker Rauf Siddiqui through media channels, and he never Siddiqui, Qadri or Dr. Abdul Sattar.
MQM Extorting “Protection Money”
Arshad Bhaila testified that they had to pay “protection money” to the MQM leadership each month, and stated that had recruited Mansoor Ahmed as the factory’s production manager, and Ahmad had links with the MQM leaders.
Arshad testified that Mansoor Ahmed informed the MQM leadership that the factory owners will pay a monthly payment Rs1.5m. The witness further testified that in 2005, production manager Mansoor Ahmed had recruited Zubair Ahmed in the finishing department, and Zubair was a friend of Majid Baig, who is the younger brother of the former MQM sector-in charge Asghar Baig of Baldia Town.
Still they are partners in Niazi's Government. Shame on all stakeholders who supporting MQM and their cronies. pic.twitter.com/X47lKzQqTV
— Emran Brohi (@ibrohi31) September 20, 2019
Arshad Bhaila testified that in 2012, the manager informed him that they would have to increase the amount of the protection money, and a meeting was arranged with Asghar Baig, who informed them that from then onwards, they will be required to increase the amount of protection money submitted to the MQM.
The witness added that on 12th July, 2012, Abdul Rehman, known as Bhola, replaced Asghar Baig as the MQM sector-in charge in Baldia Town. The factory owner narrated that one day, as they were exiting the factory Abdul Rehman blocked their way and threatened them to contact Hammad Siddiqui, the former head MQM Karachi Tanzeemi Committee to discuss the increments in protection money.
He testified that later, Bhola informed that Hammad Siddiqui has directed the factory owners to pay Rs250m and 50% share in the factory. Arshad said, “This astonished us.”
He added that he then asked their production manager Mansoor Ahmed to settle the matter by offering a payment of Rs10m. The factory owner further testified that due to the repetitive demands for protection money made by the MQM leadership, they decided to relocate their business operations to Bangladesh and even visited the country for this purpose.
Factory set on Fire
Arshad added that people from MQM began to badger and threaten them on a daily basis, to an extent that they were compelled to alter their daily routes and vehicles while visiting their factory. Bhaila recalled that on 11th September 2012, a fire broke out in the basement of the factory, and then it broke out on the upper floor of the building, but the mezzanine floor remained unharmed.
He added that the fire brigade was called but their staff arrived after delaying for 60 to 90 minutes. The witness testified that after the fire consumed their factory, the former head of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) Ahmed Chinoy sent them a message through a relative, stating that “it was not safe for them to remain at the burning factory.”
Factory owner Arshad Bhaila revealed alarming details of a nexus between the then Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad Khan, former Citizens Police Liaison Committee chief Ahmed Chinoy and the MQM leadership.https://t.co/D2aStg544B
— The Express Tribune (@etribune) September 20, 2019
The owner testified that therefore, they went to a relative’s home. He added that as soon as they left the factory, workers from the MQM took over the factory and barred anyone from going inside. He added that within 24 hours of this accident, their names were added to the Exit Control List (ECL).
Bhaila added that later, Kashif, a worker in the factory informed them that when the fire broke out, Zubair Chariya and five unknown men were seen smoking hashish in the canteen inside the factory. Kashif had also revealed that Zubair was directly involved in setting the factory on fire.
The factory owner also testified that the policy had booked them in an FIR filed on the incident, after the pressure exerted by the MQM leadership and Rauf Siddiqui, who was then serving as the provincial minister for industries.
Arshad Bhaila said, “We were depicted as the perpetrators while the real perpetrators were projected as heroes.” He added that they had secured a pre-arrest bail from the circuit bench of the Sindh High Court in Larkana, and became a part of the investigation.
He said that they had hired Advocate Naimat Randhawa to plead their case, but Randhawa was killed after appearing in court on their behalf for several hearings.