Skip to main content

Mohammed Sohel Rana, the fugitive owner of an illegally constructed building that collapsed last week in Bangladesh, is produced before the media by Rapid Action Battalion commandos in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 28, 2013. Rana was arrested near the land border in Benapole in western Bangladesh, just as he was about to flee into India’s West Bengal state, said Jahangir Kabir Nanak, junior minister for local government.Palash Khan/The Associated Press

Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed factory building where more than 377 garment workers are believed to have died, was known as a close aide of local ruling-party lawmaker and a man who got rich quick off real estate.

When the cracks in the building appeared early last Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Rana had assured tenants, including five garment factories, that the building was safe, reportedly telling workers that it would last 100 years.

Inspectors said the eight-storey building should be closed until it could be inspected. But Mr. Rana, who has now been arrested by Bangladeshi authorities, publicly scoffed. "The building has minor damages," he told gathering reporters. "There is nothing serious." The building collapsed on Wednesday, and Mr. Rana fled. He was arrested on Sunday.

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

The son of a local businessman with political connections, he became a neighbourhood force by working as an organizer for the two political parties that have competed for power for decades in Bangladesh, according to local politicians and someone who grew up near Mr. Rana and still lives in the area. In essence, these people say, Mr. Rana is a neighbourhood political enforcer, regularly ordering thousands of people into the streets for rallies.

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

Leaders of the Awami League, the ruling party, have denied that Mr. Rana was involved with their party's youth wing, the Jubo League. But his photograph can be seen on hundreds of political posters pasted on the walls of buildings throughout Savar, showing him greeting voters on behalf of the local Awami party lawmaker. That lawmaker, Talukder Touhid Jang Murad, also denied any connection to Mr. Rana after the collapse. The next day, Dhaka newspapers printed photographs of Mr. Murad kissing Mr. Rana on the forehead after a successful rally earlier this year.

Savar residents said Mr. Rana started out working with his father, who was a cooking-oil vendor, and went on to earn money by selling jhut, waste pieces of clothing from garment factories, before acquiring the land and building factories.

The Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission has said it will now open an investigation into how he got the properties. Mr. Rana was in his office on the ground floor of his building when it collapsed, but managed to escape.

Corruption rife in Bangladesh

Bangladesh politics has been dominated by the long-standing tension between the Awami League, now the ruling party, and the Bangladesh National Party. Power has swung back and forth between the two parties. The Awami League is the older of the two, having led the campaign for independence from Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. It claims its basic principles are nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy. The BNP on its website describes itself as a centre-right party dedicated to "the Islamic consciousness of the people."

No matter which of the parties has been in power, corruption has long been rife in Bangladesh. Transparency International, an international watchdog group, said its latest survey, in 2010, found that 66 per cent of Bangladeshis reported having to pay a bribe in order to access basic services in the previous 12 months.

With a report from The Associated Press