x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bangladesh building owner: a political opportunist who scoffed at cracks in walls

ohammed Sohel Ran was a feared political operative who a neighbour said had dropped out of school in seventh grade.

Property tycoon Sohel Rana (centre) surrounded by Bangladesh police after his arrest.
Property tycoon Sohel Rana (centre) surrounded by Bangladesh police after his arrest.

SAVAR, BANGLADESH // When the huge cracks appeared in the building early on Tuesday afternoon, a stocky man in his early 30s quickly arrived at the scene in Savar, a crowded industrial suburb of the capital.

He was Mohammed Sohel Rana, a feared political operative who a neighbour said had dropped out of school in seventh grade. He was also the owner of the building.

By then, fear had spread through the 3,200 people who worked in the five clothing factories packed into the upper floors of Rana Plaza, and a handful of shops on lower levels.

Most of the workers had gathered in the street. Few wanted to go back in. Inspectors said the eight-storey building should be closed until it could be inspected.

But Mr Rana scoffed at their concerns. "The building has minor damages," he told reporters who had gathered to cover the story of the cracks. "There is nothing serious."

The next morning, many of the building's shops and a bank on the first floor remained closed. But the 8am shift in the factories began as usual. About 45 minutes later, the building collapsed, killing at least 362 people in a fury of falling concrete.

It was the worst industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh.

Four days later, rescuers were still crawling through the wreckage, hoping to find anyone who had managed to survive while trapped for so long.

By Saturday, nearly all the people being carried out were dead.

Mr Rana, meanwhile, had disappeared. He left his basement office in Rana Plaza just before the collapse and drove away. He was arrested yesterday as he tried to cross the border into India.

For years, though, he had been at the nexus of party politics and the powerful Dh73.4 billion garment industry that drives the economy of this deeply impoverished nation.

This intersection of politics and business, combined with a minimum wage of Dh35 a week that has made Bangladesh the go-to nation for many of the world's largest clothing brands, means that dangerous factory conditions have become almost the norm, experts say.

Government officials, workers'-rights activists, manufacturers and retailers called for improved safety standards after a fire at a garment factory in the same suburb in November. Locked emergency exits had trapped hundreds of workers inside and 112 people died. But almost nothing has changed.

Before the collapse, Mr Rana was little known outside of the few blocks that made up his tiny empire, a grid of poorly paved streets in the crowded industrial suburb of Savar, built up during the past decade or so around hundreds of clothing factories.

The son of a businessman with political connections, he became a neighbourhood force by working as an organiser for the two political parties that have competed for power for decades in Bangladesh, according to local politicians, as well as someone who grew up near him and still lives in the area.

Mr Rana is the leader of the youth group of the ruling Awami League, and has previously worked for that party's archrival, the Bangladesh National Party.

"He doesn't belong to any particular political party," said Ashrafuddin Khan Imu, an Awami League leader and longtime rival of Mr Rana. "Whatever party is in power, he is there."

In essence, Mr Rana is a neighborhood political enforcer, regularly ordering thousands of people into the streets for rallies.

Most recently he has been working for the Awami League legislator, Talukder Touhid Jang Murad, said Mr Imu.

When Mr Murad was asked about Mr Rana after the collapse, he denied any connections. The next day, Dhaka newspapers printed photographs of Mr Murad kissing Mr Rana on the forehead after a successful rally this year.

"He used to intimidate people whenever he needed them, like bringing people out for street marches in support of the lawmaker," said the neighbour, who asked not to be named out of fear that Mr Rana would send men to beat him up, having been threatened before. "Neighbours would avoid him ... No one wanted to upset him."

After the cracks appeared in the building, witnesses said Mr Rana quickly went to work. On Wednesday morning, he and a number of factory managers ordered nervous workers into the building, shortly before the collapse.

"I was too afraid to go inside the building," said Kohinoor Begum, a factory worker whose hands were injured in the collapse. "But the factory officials assured us they would also be in the factory, so there should not be any problem."

Cheers went up at the scene of the collapsed building when his arrest was announced. But in the streets of Savar, many noted that while three managers had been arrested over the Tazreen fire, the factory owner remains free.