The owners of a garment factory in Bangladesh surrendered to authorities yesterday to face homicide charges for a 2012 fire at the plant that killed 112 employees.
Police filed homicide charges in December against 13 people in connection with the fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd factory, including the owners, Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter. Arrest warrants were issued for six of the accused who police said had fled, including the owners.
The November 2012 fire was one of several deadly disasters that have exposed harsh and unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry. A factory collapse last April killed more than 1,100 workers.
After Hossain and Akter turned themselves in, a court in the capital, Dhaka, rejected their bail petition and ordered them to be jailed, pending further legal procedures. Four of the accused are still at large.
If found guilty, they face a minimum of seven years and up to life in prison.
The factory, on the edge of Dhaka, produced clothing for major retailers including American chain Wal-Mart. It had no emergency exits and its location, in a narrow alley, prevented firefighters from responding quickly to the blaze, Mr Babul said.
Many of those who died in the multi-storey building perished because supervisors ordered workers back to their stations even as a fire alarm rang out and smoke rose through an internal staircase.
The investigation found that, when the fire broke out, managers and security guards told workers it was part of a regular drill and it was too late for many to escape when they realised the truth. Workers also found gates locked from outside as the fire engulfed the sprawling building, according to the investigation.
It is the first time Bangladesh has sought to prosecute factory owners in its garment industry, which is the world’s second largest after China.
The impoverished South Asian nation earns the equivalent of more than £12 billion a year from garment exports, mainly to the United States and Europe.
Witnesses said several hundred people gathered outside the court and chanted for the pair to be given the death penalty.
A state prosecutor, Anwarul Kabir, said the couple had pleaded for bail after surrendering.
“The court sent them to jail after rejecting their bail petition,” Mr Kabir said.
In total, 13 people were charged in connection with the disaster, a rare step in a country where critics complain that powerful garment industry bosses often go unpunished for factory accidents.
The charges included breaching construction rules, such as the failure to provide two emergency exits.
In December, Bangladesh raised wages for garment industry employees. In July, it allowed workers to form trade unions after a string of factory accidents thrust poor pay and conditions into the international spotlight.
The industry, which supplies many Western brands, came under scrutiny when a building housing factories collapsed in April, five months after the Tazreen fire, killing more than 1,130 people.
The owner of that building that collapsed, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was arrested after a four-day hunt as he appeared to be trying to flee across the border to India.
After the Tazreen blaze, American retail giants Wal-Mart Stores and Sears Holdings said that goods were being manufactured for them at the factory, though both said they had denied it authorisation as a supplier.