ONCE again, a suspected gas leak in Karachi’s Keamari locality has raised questions about safety protocols and risk mitigation at the port. In less than a week, over 20 patients were rushed to Ziauddin Hospital, showing signs of similar symptoms. Tragically, four shortly passed away. Before that, on Dec 18, nine patients from Keamari had checked in because of breathing problems, mentioning a noticeable ‘pungent’ smell in the air. If the hospital had not released a statement about their recent patients — detailing the similarities with cases from an earlier gas leak that took place in the same neighbourhood, in which residents complained about dizziness, stinging eyes, itchy throats, chest tightness and breathing issues — few would have heard about this case. It seems lessons have not yet been learnt from that horrific accident in February — in which 14 residents died while around 500 fell sick after a ‘mysterious gas’ enveloped a part of the coastal city — and it is not clear what measures, if any, were put in place to prevent a similar tragedy.
More worryingly, the ‘source’ of the leak was never ascertained and the case remained inconclusive, despite a petition filed by a man who lost his mother during that fateful period, and despite the protests that broke out in the aftermath. This lack of transparency and answers would keep any thinking citizen up at night. Furthermore, finger-pointing seems to have become the preferred tactic for deflecting blame in Sindh politics, following each catastrophe, as each authority passes the blame onto the other. No one takes responsibility, and no one is held accountable. Unfortunately, the death and suffering of certain people and neighbourhoods barely creates a ripple in the public consciousness, let alone generates the necessary outrage that leads to promises of change. Indeed, chemical or industrial leakages are usually the result of human negligence and of not undertaking proper risk assessments or failure to implement safety standards. Without accountability and greater transparency, another accident is simply waiting to happen.
A dangerous man
THAT one of the most dangerous and devious militants in Pakistan may be on the verge of gaining his freedom is a disturbing prospect. On Thursday, the Sindh High Court set aside the provincial government’s detention orders for Omer Saeed Sheikh and three others convicted for the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl and directed they be released forthwith. It is the latest development in a case where there have been several unexpected twists and turns. Eight months ago, the SHC appellate bench overturned the death penalty handed down to Sheikh in 2002 as the main accused and acquitted him and his accomplices of murder and kidnapping for ransom. However, it found him guilty of abducting the American journalist and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Given Sheikh had already been incarcerated for 18 years, his release was imminent. The Sindh government moved quickly and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court — as did Daniel Pearl’s parents — and also detained the men under the Maintenance of Public Order. In the recent hearing however, the government was unable to convincingly argue the case for the men’s continued detention. Following an interim order temporarily barring their release, no further progress has been made on the appeals in the apex court.
Sheikh’s criminal career is a chilling profile of a wily and ruthless man. He was serving time in an Indian jail in connection with the kidnapping of several foreign tourists in that country in the mid-1990s, when he was sprung from prison in 1999 on the demand of militants who had hijacked an Indian airliner and were holding the passengers hostage. That was followed up by the grisly episode of Pearl’s abduction and murder in January 2002. Even while behind bars, Sheikh continued to display an implacable zeal to act on his extremist convictions. Suspected of having played a role in one of the assassination attempts on Gen Musharraf, he even contrived to intensify India-Pakistan tensions around the time of the Mumbai attacks by making hoax calls to Pakistan’s then president. That he was convicted for Pearl’s murder was a feather in Pakistan’s cap where the battle against militancy was concerned. However, the appeals process highlighted the appallingly shoddy investigation process which allowed many co-conspirators to escape even being charged. One hopes the apex court resumes hearing the appeals quickly so that this dangerous man remains behind bars.