Karachi was rocked by yet another scandalous allegation against MQM yesterday [06-Feb-2015]. The Karachi Rangers (a federal paramilitary force) lodged a report to the Sindh High Court alleging that MQM was responsible for the Baldia Town factory fire (11-Sept-2012) in which 262 people were burned alive.
Yet another Bogus unproven allegation
This allegation is even worse than the 2013 allegation by DG-Rangers that MQM had stolen 19,000 boxes of NATO weapons, as now we are being accused of burning Karachiites alive inside a textile factory inferno. As my report below shows, this allegation is totally unsubstantiated and without merit, like the 19,000 boxes allegation.
The deceased in this terrible tragedy were mainly MQM supporters. We would immediately go to aid any emergency situation irrespective of who was being burned to death. In this case, the allegation against MQM is even more inappropriate because it was our own family, friends and relatives who were burnt alive. MQM workers made their way immediately to the factory. However, as was usually the situation at the factory, the doors were all locked from inside to prevent workers leaving shift early or taking any goods with them.This Rangers report [see original copy here] & [See transcript here] is part of a long report of interrogation of Mohammad Rizwan Qureshi. According to the Rangers report, Qureshi was an MQM official, yet MQM has officially denied that he was linked with MQM. It would be helpful for Rangers to provide what evidence they have received which indicated that Qureshi was part of MQM. Most Muhajirs are related to someone involved with MQM so family relations don’t count.
Joint Investigation Tribunal (JIT) Report – Summary
Besides, the Rangers report doesn’t state that Qureshi carried out the attack. It states that Qureshi heard from an MQM official that another MQM official did it. The Baldia Town allegation itself is only composed of 500 words, and provides no supporting evidence. The first sentence reads:
“During the interrogation, the accused [ie Qureishi] revealed that Well-Known High Party official demanded extortion money (BHATTA) of 20 Caror though his front man from the owner of Ali Enterprises in Aug 2012; on this demand of extortion money (BHATTA) the factory owner met with Sector in-Charge of Baldia Town Asghar Baig and told him that on the demand of Party High Official someone asked them for extortion money (BHATTA)”
In summary, the report says that MQM asked for Rs. 200 million, the factory owners refused to pay, and then the order came from senior MQM level to burn down the factory. Then the report states that the senior MQM Minister then somehow managed to get the arrested Factory owners released on bail, and then took Rs. 15 Crores (Rs.150 million) “for disposal of the case”.
The last sentence reads: “Accused [ie Qureishi] told that these all information he took from ex-Senior In-charge Baldia Town”. In other words, Rangers are claiming Qureshi didn’t do it, but he heard from someone who told him what happened.
So it seems that there is no “evidence” for the claim, except what Qureishi said whilst being interrogated by the Rangers in their interview cell. Secondly, note the amount: Rs. 20 Crore (Rs200 million). In September 2012, (then Rs94:$1), that was $2.12 million.
Many MQM workers are being abducted all the time by plainclothes security officials, and their dead bodies turn up dumped a few days later. With this background, it can be assumed that Qureishi was speaking under duress. Any such confession would be inadmissible in any properly run legal system. In fact, it is a farce with potentially dangerous ramifications.
Alleged US$2 Million Extortion Claim
Then the amount: Two million US dollars! The Rangers report is saying that, because the Factory owners refused to pay $2m, MQM burnt down the factory and all 250 people inside it. I will present some basic forensic evidence to show that the claim allegedly made by Qureshi is false, but let’s focus on the $2m amount.
There have not been any other major factory fires in Karachi with casualties in recent years aside from this fire. There was a small factory fire in December 2014 which occured on Friday night (weekend in Pakistan) with no casualties, for which I suspect an insurance claim is pending.
There are well over 1000 such factories across Karachi, which have been functioning for years without getting burnt down. Therefore, this $2m bhatta demand implies that MQM would be raking in Hundreds of Millions of US Dollars a year from such bhatta demands. Where is this money going? It is not being invested in 90 Azizabadi MQM HQ. It is not being invested in MQM Health services. MQM Officials do not ride in fancy cars, and certainly don’t cruise the South of France in large super yachts. I’m not aware of any MQM Private Jets. So if MQM burnt down a single factory over non-payment of a $2m bhatta demand, where is the rest of the money that MQM must be getting from such bhatta demands? Quite frankly, such a claim is utter nonsense. Anyone who believes it is beyond delusional.
Alleged US$1.59 Million Payment for Case Disposal
At the end of the report, it is stated that:
“After that ex Prime Minister helps Factory Owners for taking bail from Punjab High Court but after the interruption of Most high Official that this is a Provincial matter so stay away from it then Ex Prime Minister steps away from the matter and one unknown front man of the most high Official who was in Government took 15 Caror from Factor[y] Owner for disposal of the case”.
Here, it is being alleged that the ex Prime Minister of Pakistan (unnamed), was intervening in favour of the factory owners, but was warned to stay away from the case by MQM, at that time a junior coalition member of Sindh Provincial Government. Aside from the sheer preposterous nature of this suggestion, the report then states that an MQM Official (via an unnamed front man) took Rs.15 Crore (Rs. 150 million, US$1.59 million) “for disposal of the case”.
MQM has no control over the Sindh Courts. They report directly to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, who was then Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. CJ Chaudry was notorious for his hatred for MQM, so the suggestion that an MQM official could first demand extortion money of $2.12m, then burn a fire, then have the factory owners jailed, then have them released for a payment of $1.59m is nothing short of ridiculous.
On a more forensic level, no proof has been provided for the payment of $1.59m. This is a gigantic amount in cash – it about three large sized briefcases filled with $100 bills. There should be a bank withdrawal transfer, or some cash transfer to prove that this amount was withdrawn from a bank. If this cannot be proven, it implies that the Rangers Report is stating that the Factory owners kept $1.6 million in spare cash with them? This is also quite ridiculous. The Factory owners’ business was all based on payments from foreign organisations. The Rangers should not provide some sort of proof that the factory owners even had $1.6m in cash.
Therefore, without any further supporting evidence, the report submitted by Rangers to Sindh High Court would not stand the test of basic legal standards in any developed legal system, and would be considered inadmissible in court.
Questions to Solve the Baldia Fire Case
Now let us move on to the case of the Baldia Town Factory fire itself. The evidence available provides a lot of information and leads which I hope will be pursued properly by the authorities.
- The factory was supplying Jeans for a single client, the German clothes retailer “KIK”, which has annual revenues of € 1.2 billion. The Baldia factory had failed safety assessments in 2007 – the authorities should publish this safety assessment failure report to see why the Factory failed the test.
- Just 1 month before the fire, the local Karachi office of an Italian Company “RINA” conducted a safety assessment of the factory, and passed it according to international safety standards. However, CCTV evidence shows that the factory did not pass international safety standards. There were no fire exits, windows were barred shut, and there was only 1 regular exit. Soon after the fire, KIK ended its relationship with RINA and did not use RINA for any further safety assessment reports. Karachi Rangers should request a copy of the RINA safety report and assess whether it was conducted in a proper manner. If there is any evidence of negligence in the report preparation, this is evidence of severe breach of safety regulations
- In December 2012, KIK agreed to pay $1 million compensation to the deceased’ families. Yet this amount has still not been paid. For what reason is KIK, a multi-billion Euro German company, holding up this tiny payment.
- In December 2014 (ie 1 month ago) the relatives of 5 of the deceased filed a case against KIK in a German court, and will be demanding compensation. The relatives are blaming KIK, yet the Rangers filed a report stating that MQM did it. Do the Rangers have any substantive evidence (aside from a Witness “confession”) to prove that the legal case being pursued in the German courts is wrong?
- A Sindh Government Tribunal headed by Justice (retd) Zahid Kurban Alavi and Khalilur Rehman Shaikh published a report in December 2012 (3 months after the fire) which concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit. The allegation in the Rangers report suggests that Sindh government Tribunal conclusions were bogus. It would be helpful if Rangers could provide a written summary of what was wrong with the Sindh Govt tribunal report.
- How old was the factory building, what equipment and electrical systems were in the factory, how old were they, and where are their maintenance reports?
- Authorities should check whether any insurance claim has been made for the factory, and publish the insurance claim report so the public can see what the owners claimed as the cause of the fire.
- News channels at the time of the fire broadcast the Factory’s CCTV footage (12 cameras). This shows that the fire started at around 18:55, just after sunset (18:41). Authorities should present video evidence of the miscreants who burnt down the factory. According to the Rangers report, an MQM official (Rehman Bhola) and his “unknown accomplices threw chemical substances which caused the fire”. They should be shown entering the factory and leaving (unless the arsonists are alleged to have done a suicide arson attack!)
Shoddy Investigation by Rangers
It seems that Rangers would be well advised to sharpen their investigative skills. It is unfortunate to note that Rangers investigation teams have a history of feeding false information to their bosses. This is the fault of the investigation teams, not the senior Rangers.
For example, in 2013, the former Director-General of the Sindh Rangers, Major-General R. Akhtar, presented a case before the Supreme Court. General Akhtar claimed that, in the prior tenure of MQM of Sindh’s Ministry of Ports, 19,000 NATO weapons containers had gone missing. In other words, the implication was that MQM had used its ministerial responsibility for Karachi’s port to misappropriate 19,000 boxes full of weapons – this is enough to equip a small army.
The former MQM Minister for Ports and Shipping (Babar Ghauri) publicly denied any such theft had occurred. Many anti-MQM haters used this opportunity to call MQM terrorists, extortionists and so on, and urged military action against MQM. A few days later, the US Ambassador clarified that there had not been any theft of NATO weapons from Karachi. Therefore, the claim made by the DG Rangers turned out to be utterly bogus. This was quite an unfortunate incident, as the Rangers is a Federal Paramilitary force, and it is difficult to understand how they could have received information that 19,000 boxes of weapons had been stolen when they hadn’t. If 19,000 boxes of weapons were laid end to end, they would stretch from Clifton beach all the way to Jinnah International Airport and back again.
As the 19,000 boxes of weapons showed, and as this bogus unsubstantiated Baldia Fire allegation shows, MQM is often accused of the most vile criminal activity without a shred of evidence. This is a poor reflection of the state of policing in Karachi, and also reflects poorly on the investigative skills of Karachi Rangers. I would urge the responsible authorities to remove the low-level investigative team which has submitted such a scandalous report to the Sindh High Court. It is widely understood that Karachi Rangers is composed mostly of Punjabi officials. It would be helpful if the Rangers sought to employ some local Karachi Muhajirs to conduct such investigations, as the local knowledge would be invaluable in ensuring that investigations were conducted properly.