Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bangladesh Clothes Factory Disaster Miracle Is Branded A Hoax By Colleague Of Woman Rescued

Sewing machinist Reshma Begum was pulled from the rubble 17 days after factory collapsed but now a fellow worker claims she escaped with him on the day of the disaster

The miracle rescue of a worker 17 days after the Bangladesh clothes factory disaster has been branded a HOAX.

Millions around the world reacted with joy as pictures showed sewing machinist Reshma Begum being lifted from the rubble in which 1,221 died.

But a Sunday Mirror investigation today reveals doubts over the “rescue” as a male colleague claims she got out with him on the day the nine-storey building collapsed in April.

The survivor, who says he was working alongside her on the third floor, declared: “We escaped together. We both walked away from the rubble.

“We spent two days in hospital but then she vanished. The next time I saw her was on TV 17 days later. They said it was a miracle. But it was a fake.”

The Sunday Mirror travelled to Bangladesh to meet anti-government campaigners who insist the rescue was staged by the authorities to combat the wave of bad publicity that engulfed the country’s £1billion-a-year garment industry after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Dhaka.

We were played a recording of the worker’s evidence. His name is being withheld because he has gone into hiding amid fear of reprisals.

His dramatic hoax claims have been investigated by journalists from Dhaka’s pro-opposition daily, Amar Desh.

Reporters there were also told by survivor Reshma’s landlady that she had escaped the collapse on the day it happened and had been treated at the nearby Enam hospital.

People who live on streets around the factory described how they were mysteriously forcibly evacuated from their homes the day before 19-year-old Reshma’s rescue and allowed back the next day with no explanation.

At the same time a 24-hour ban was imposed on the filming of the ongoing rescue operation.

Questions have also been raised over Reshma’s physical appearance when she was taken from the ruins as well as the condition of her clothes.

Investigative reporter Shishir Abdullah said: “She did not show any signs of having been trapped beneath tons of rubble for 17 days.

“She said she had to claw her way through bricks and debris to reach water in dead victims’ rucksacks, but her hands and fingernails did not show the marks you would expect.

“Also her eyes were wide open when they pulled her out and she did not appear to be sensitive to the bright sunlight. The sari she wore was not ripped or torn and appeared clean.

“People were suspicious but the government made a huge fuss of hailing it as a miracle. People were taken in. Everyone was fooled.”

A week ago, illiterate Reshma was paraded at a government press conference in a new job as an ambassador for a five-star Dhaka hotel, where she is being paid £600-a-month - 10 times the average salary.

She reacted angrily to suggestions of a hoax, saying: “Where I was, you were not there. So you have no idea.” Officials then banned further questions. It has been claimed Reshma was given the job after turning down the offer of a new life in the US.

On Friday we travelled to Rani Ganj, the remote village where Reshma grew up 300 miles north west of Dhaka, the country’s capital.

Speaking at her family home – a tiny, single-room mud shack with a straw roof – her mother Jobeda refuted the hoax claims, telling us: “Her escape IS the miracle everyone thinks it is.”

But she added: “We have lots of money now Reshma has her new job. We have a good future now.”

“After we heard the building had collapsed we were so worried. My husband and I travelled to Dhaka and waited with the other families for news. We prayed Reshma would be found but our prayers went unanswered.”

On May 10, the 17th day of the rescue operation, an announcement was made over a loudspeaker erected at the site to keep families informed.

“It said, ‘A woman has been found alive. Her name is Reshma’.”

Jobeda said: “I fainted. When I came round, people took me to the hospital to see her. She was awake and spoke to us. She told us she was happy.

“She had just minor marks on her arms but otherwise she was fine. I was overjoyed. I couldn’t believe how lucky she had been. The army were looking after her.

"When she was well enough, she left and was then given her new job at the hotel. She will send us money and we are expecting her to come home and visit us twice a year.”

The slum-dwelling victims of the collapse worked for just £1 a day making jeans for Primark in the UK and other stores around the world.

Their complaints of cracks in the factory’s walls in the days before the collapse on April 24 were ignored by the wealthy owners, who had added an extra three floors to the building without permission.

They are now under arrest and facing demands for the death penalty for flouting planning laws.

A survey by engineers in Bangladesh revealed earlier this month three fifths of the country’s garment factories are vulnerable to collapse.

When we put the hoax rescue claims to the Bangladesh army last night, spokesman Lieutenant Commander Nure Alam Siddique said: “We have no comment to make.”

Mirror :

ZIA: The thankless role in saving democracy in Bangladesh : 'Corruption and stealing threaten a once-vibrant nation'

Will 2013 be a watershed in U.S.-Bangladeshi relations? My country of 150 million people, located between India and Myanmar, has been independent since 1971, when the United States was one of the first nations to recognize our right to self-determination. Yet in the past year, relations have been strained to the point where the United States may be accused of standing idle while democracy in Bangladesh is undermined and its economic allegiance shifts toward other growing world powers.

This is not to say that the U.S. government, Congress or agencies they help lead have done nothing. Six months ago, the World Bank withdrew nearly $2 billion in funding for a four-mile bridge project, the largest single infrastructure project in Bangladesh for 40 years, and demanded an inquiry into ministerial corruption and misappropriation of funds.

At the same time, members of the U.S. congressional caucus on Bangladesh condemned the government — in particular Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — for removing Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus from his post as managing director of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’s award-winning microfinance institution that has pulled millions out of poverty. The reason for his ouster? Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said the honor was presented to the wrong person: “If anybody in Bangladesh deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, it is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.”

Most Bangladeshis would disagree that Ms. Hasina has any claim on the prize. Just ask the families of some 300 people who have been registered as missing since 2009 at the hands of Ms. Hasina's Rapid Action Battalion — a paramilitary wing of the police. Or consider the family of murdered workers’ rights campaigner Aminul Islam, on whose behalf the AFL-CIO is campaigning to overturn U.S.-Bangladeshi trade preferences. Political leaders and their supporters who are being accused by a local war crimes tribunal of involvement in atrocities during the 1971 war of independence also would question Ms. Hasina’s right to the Nobel Prize.

The U.S. ambassador for war crimes has condemned Ms. Hasina’s government for trying only opponents of the regime. In December, the Economist published leaked emails and phone recordings revealing the complicity of the Hasina administration in these trials, and how they are abusing them to issue death sentences to Ms. Hasina’s political opponents.

The simple fact is that over the past five years, Bangladesh has been moving rapidly away from being one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies toward a single family taking over the levers of power. Now Ms. Hasina is attempting to remove from the constitution the need for a caretaker government — six months before the election. Indeed, she herself helped institute this rule, which calls for a nonpolitical government to take the reigns of power and oversee the electoral process unencumbered by political interference.

Having a caretaker government has been the insurance that elections are free and fair. If the voters decide to vote for a new government, then power must change hands. Despite millions joining in street protests against plans to ditch the caretaker government system before the general election this year, Ms. Hasina seems intent on pushing ahead, believing it will allow her to be re-elected despite popular opposition to her rule.

Bangladesh’s neighbor Burma is emerging from exile with the visit of President Obama in the aftermath of his re-election. India continues its growth as the world’s largest democracy. If Bangladesh succumbs to the rule of one family, it would be a major step backward for the region. Southeast Asia is now a region full of hope because of the freedoms America has helped foster. Under a caretaker government, the people of Bangladesh have the chance to express their will through the ballot box.

The United States and its allies, such as Great Britain, have the influence to insist that a caretaker government is instituted so the views of the voters are respected. To ensure this, their words and actions must be much stronger, to keep Bangladesh from slipping away from democracy. Congress and the British Parliament must continue to honor individuals such as Mr. Yunus for what he has achieved to alleviate poverty, while others such as Ms. Hasina have merely coveted recognition.

They also must explain to Ms. Hasina that general preferences for trade will be withdrawn if those who support workers’ rights and have political views opposed to those of the prime minister are not now allowed to express their beliefs. The Western powers should consider targeted travel and other sanctions against those in the regime who undermine democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. They should say and do these things publicly, for all our citizens to see and hear. This is how the United States can ensure that its mission to democratize the world continues.

It was once said, “There is a higher court than courts of justice, and that is the court of conscience.” It is impossible to say in good conscience that democracy, justice and the alleviation of poverty in Bangladesh under Ms. Hasina are safe. Indeed, all are in grave danger. It is time for the world, led by America, to act and ensure that democracy is saved in Bangladesh.

Begum Khaleda Zia is former prime minister of Bangladesh and current leader of the opposition.