Politically-connected arsonists set a blaze that killed more than 250 Pakistani garment factory workers because the owners would not pay extortion money, a court has ruled as it sentenced two men to hang.
Pakistan's worst ever industrial blaze was not an accident, but was deliberately set by local activists affiliated with a political party currently part of the ruling government coalition.
The September 2012 fire at the Ali Enterprise factory in the Baldia town area of Karachi caused national outcry as survivors gave harrowing accounts of stampeding workers dying trapped behind locked factory doors.
An anti-terrorism court in the city on Tuesday gave death sentences to Rehman Bhola and Zubair Chariya, both former activists with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) party. Four other defendants were found complicit and four others, including the then provincial minister for industries, Rauf Siddiqui, were acquitted.
The MQM has been notorious in Karachi for its use of political violence and links to organised crime, but is currently a partner in Imran Khan's ruling coalition government.
The current MQM leadership denies any involvement with the fire and says such activities were directed from abroad, where several important leaders live, including the founder of the party, Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile and is now a British citizen. The party says it has cut all ties with Hussain.
A 25-page intelligence report published in July sharply criticised the original police investigation for being swayed by the influential culprits into blaming the factory owners.
Officers at first said an electrical short circuit had sparked the fire which had quickly spread in a premises packed with rolls of denim and cotton cloth.
A later joint investigation team of nine senior police and intelligence officials concluded instead that the fire was “a planned sabotage/terrorist activity and not an accidental fire, carried out due to refusal to pay extortion of 200 million rupees”.
MQM officials often extorted money from the factory under the pretext of religious collections, or party donations, the investigation found. A bribe was demanded several weeks before the blaze and the owners refused and attempted to reach a settlement.