Eight people were arrested Saturday by police in Bangladesh on murder charges in connection with a factory fire that killed at least 52 people, many of whom were trapped inside by an illegally locked door, a police official said.
The blaze began Thursday night at the five-story Hashem Foods Ltd. factory in Rupganj, just outside the capital Dhaka, sending huge clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky. Police discovered piles of bodies Friday afternoon after the fire had been extinguished.
"We have arrested them for murder charges,” Jayedul Alam, police superintendent for Narayanganj district, told The Associated Press (AP) by phone. "They are in our custody now.”
Among those detained is the chairperson and managing director of Sajeeb Group, which owns the factory, said Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzman Khan.
The minister did not provide further details but said those responsible would be punished.
"It’s a murder,” Khan told reporters as he visited the factory site Saturday.
Bangladesh has a tragic history of industrial disasters, including factories catching fire with the workers locked inside.
In similar cases, owners have faced culpable homicide charges for their negligence.
Officials say the main exit of the factory that caught fire Thursday was locked from the inside, and that many of those who died were trapped.
One of them was 23-year-old Rima Akter, who made desperate calls to her family as the fire began to engulf the factory.
On Saturday, her mother and other family members struggled to identify her remains in the morgue at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
"We have checked 36 body bags, but it is very difficult to identify her,” her brother-in-law Arafat Rahman said.
Her mother cried as officials tried to reassure several families waiting outside the hospital that the bodies would be returned once DNA tests were run, as most had suffered severe burns. Forensic experts collected DNA samples from victims' family members, and by late Saturday afternoon samples from 33 of the deceased had been collected, officials at the hospital said.
Debashish Bardhan, a deputy director of the Fire Service and Civil Defense, said emergency exits were locked when the fire broke out, trapping the workers. According to Bangladesh’s factory laws, a factory cannot lock its exit when workers are inside during production hours.
The factory is a subsidiary of Sajeeb Group, a Bangladeshi company that produces juice under Pakistan’s Lahore-based Shezan International Ltd. According to the group’s website, the company exports its products to a number of countries including Australia, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bhutan, Nepal and nations in the Middle East and Africa.
Despite the South Asian nation’s rapid economic growth, corruption and lax enforcement have resulted in many deaths over the years. Big international brands, which employ tens of thousands of low-paid workers in Bangladesh, have come under heavy pressure to improve factory conditions.
In 2012, about 117 workers died when they were trapped behind locked exits in a garment factory in Dhaka. Just a year later, the country saw its worst industrial disaster when a garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.
The tragedy sparked tougher safety rules for the garment industry, but many other sectors fail to maintain safety standards and disasters have continued.
In February 2019, a blaze ripped through a 400-year-old area cramped with apartments, shops and warehouses in the oldest part of Dhaka, killing at least 67 people.
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