The owner of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex and 37 other people were officially charged Monday with murder over the building’s collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in April 2013, in Bangladesh’s deadliest industrial accident.
“The court has, for the first time, heard a full hearing on the murder case against the building owners, the factory owners and others,” prosecutor Khandker Abdul Mannan told BenarNews.
A Dhaka court charged 38 defendants with murder and three others for helping building owner Sohel Rana flee soon after the collapse of the multi-story complex, according to news reports.
He was arrested a few days later as he tried to cross the border into India.
Rana and 34 other defendants appeared in court on Monday while six are fugitives and will be tried in absentia, according to Reuters.
All the defendants who were in court on Monday pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, Mannan said. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.
Last year, authorities said they were considering charging the defendants with culpable homicide, which carries a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
Thirty-eight of the defendants were charged with murder because they allegedly forced workers to enter the nine-story building despite safety concerns. Cracks in the building were discovered a day earlier.
“Most of the workers came out of the building, but they [the 38 defendants] compelled them to enter the building, threatening termination,” Mannan said. “They killed innocent people.”
The court set Sept. 18 for witness depositions, the prosecutor said.
Rana and 17 others, including some of the defendants who were in court on Monday, were charged in June with building-code violations linked to the collapse.
Anwar Kabir Babul, who is prosecuting the building-code case, said Rana had a permit to construct a six-story building, but colluded with town planning officials, engineers and others to add three floors to the structure.
As many as 1,135 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured in the collapse of Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013. The building in the Dhaka suburb of Savar housed five factories that produced ready-made garments for international brands.
The tragedy focused international attention on unsafe and exploitative working conditions at Bangladesh's 3,500 garment factories, which employ nearly 3 million people – mostly women –and it forced global retailers to address deficiencies in Bangladesh's garment sector, which represents a huge slice of its export economy.
Duty-free access to Western markets and low wages for its workers helped turn Bangladesh's garment exports into a $28 billion-a-year industry, Reuters reported. The minimum monthly wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $68, compared with about $280 in mainland China, which remains the world's biggest exporter of clothes.