By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - The owner of a Bangladesh garment factory that was destroyed in a deadly fire last year said on Monday he was "saddened and astonished" that he had been charged with culpable homicide for the death of 112 workers and would plead innocent in court.
The police on Sunday laid charges against Delwar Hossain, his wife and 11 employees of Tazreen Fashions, a rare step in a country where critics complain that powerful garment industry bosses too often avoid blame for the many factory accidents.
Many of those who died in the blaze at the multi-storey building on the outskirts of Dhaka in November 2012 perished because supervisors ordered workers back to their stations even as an alarm rang and smoke rose through an internal staircase.
Hossain was absolved of blame earlier this year in a report by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) on the incident.
"It saddened and astonished me to see that both my wife and I are the main accused," Hossain told Reuters by telephone, adding that supervisors who had allegedly blocked workers trying to escape from the burning factory were still on the run.
"I have the full respect for the law, and because of that I did not try to flee the country though I had a U.S. visa. I am not guilty and will try to prove it when the trial begins."
The charges against the 13 included breaching construction rules and building design faults such as the failure to provide two emergency exits, an investigating officer said. If convicted the accused face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Bangladesh has emerged as the world's second-biggest exporter of clothing after China thanks to its low wages and duty-free access to Western markets. Its sales of apparel to big brands around the world is the poverty-plagued country's economic lifeline, accounting for 80 percent of its exports.
But a series of deadly incidents, including a building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people several months after the Tazreen fire, has triggered global concern over weak safety standards in the country's $22-billion garment industry.
Nine people were arrested, including the owner of the building for that accident, the world's deadliest industrial disaster after the Bhopal gas leak accident in India in 1984.
The Tazreen fire tragedy put a spotlight on global retailers that source clothes from Bangladesh, where labor costs were then as little as $37 a month for some workers.
Hossain was held captive in his office by angry workers at another of his factories for more than 18 hours in October until he paid a promised bonus, just one incident in a long-running confrontation this year between management and workers over pay.
Last month factory owners agreed to a proposed 77 percent rise in the minimum wage to $68 a month.
After the Tazreen blaze, both Wal-Mart Stores inc and Sears Holdings Inc said that their goods were being manufactured at the workshop even though both had specifically denied it authorization as a supplier.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that despite the negligence charges, many of the retailers whose clothes were being produced at the factory have not paid any compensation.
"During the big sales over Christmas, Human Rights Watch calls on brands that were sourcing from Tazreen Fashions to direct some of their profits to join an International Labour Organization effort to fund full and fair compensation to all injured and the families of those killed," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of the group, said in a statement.
(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Alison Williams)