ISLAMABAD - A Pakistani court Tuesday sentenced two men to death and another four convicts to life in prison for setting a garment factory ablaze in 2012, the worst industrial fire in the country's history, that killed 264 people.
The court said the men from a local political party started the fire in retaliation for the factory owners refusing to pay more than $1 million in extortion money.
The stories of people burning alive in a building with no fire exits or extinguishers caused an uproar across the country and drew attention to the hazardous working conditions of garment factory employees.
The owners of the Karachi factory, Ali Enterprise, claim they had a safety certification, but families of victims refuse to believe them.
"There were no fire extinguishers, no way for people to get out. How can they claim they had a safety certificate?" said Saeeda Khatoon, a leading member of the Ali Enterprise Victims Association.
She said if anyone had contacted the owners for extortion, the owners should have either closed the factory or reached out to security forces for protection.
"We stood in front of the factory all night. The next day we got dead bodies of our children," she said.
Victims' families say with proper safety mechanisms in place, lives could have been saved.
The owners, brothers Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, moved to Dubai after the fire and have not returned to Pakistan.
Eight-year court case
The prosecution presented 400 witnesses in a case that lasted eight years. Police said three out of the four exits from the factory were locked and the windows had metal rods, keeping people from escaping the blaze that engulfed the building and everything inside.
The two men sentenced to death, Abdul Rehman, also known as Bhola, and Muhammed Zubair, known as Zubair Charya, belonged to MQM, a political party that has often been linked to violence in the past.
The party split into several factions in 2017. One of those factions, that claims it has cut all ties with its previous top leadership, is part of Pakistan's governing coalition.
The court acquitted MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui, then-provincial minister for commerce and industries, due to lack of evidence. He was accused of ordering the arson.
Activists say the incident has not changed the hazardous conditions factory workers face in Karachi.