Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Body in France crash site surprises police searching for Chinese billionaire Kok Lam

French authorities have fished out a body from the Dordogne River, the site of a helicopter crash thought to have killed Chinese billionaire Kok Lam and a French winemaker – but the find was not what they expected.

Colonel Ghislain Rety, head of the gendarmerie, or police force, in the Gironde region, said the body was that of a person reported missing several months ago.

“A body was found on Saturday in the Dordogne. It was a person who had disappeared in the river in April,” Rety said on Monday, adding that the April accident had occurred about 30 kilometres from the site of the helicopter crash.

Efforts to find the remains of 46-year-old tea and property magnate Kok Lam, his interpreter and financial adviser, Peng Wang; as well as pilot and French entrepreneur James Gregoire are still ongoing after the helicopter fell into the river.

Only the body of Lam Kok’s 12-year-old son, Kok Shun Yu, has been recovered.

The group had been taking a celebratory aerial tour of a chateau estate that Kok had just bought from Gregoire. Kok’s wife, Liu Xiangyun, was meant to join them but declined at the last minute, saying she was afraid of helicopters.

On Monday, French police launched a delicate operation to lift the aircraft from a river bed to find clues. ”The aim is to preserve the wreckage in its current form, for small details that can explain why it crashed,” Rety said.

Investigators also conducted a sonar search on Sunday night to scan for bodies in the Dordogne, a 430-kilometre-long river in the region of the same name, which runs from a mountain and flows into the Gironde River.

The search is focused on a 20-kilometre stretch along the river from where the chopper crashed.

The wreckage of the Robinson R44 helicopter, which is used by the police and army in several countries, was located early on Saturday in seven metres.

“Every lead is being followed – the weather, the rules, maintenance, the pilot’s qualifications and the characteristics of the flight,” said Philippe Mole of France’s air transport investigation department.

Kok and his wife head a Hong Kong company, Brilliant Group, which handled upmarket teas, luxury hotels, and the construction and management of shopping centres.

A day before the crash, they bought the Chateau de La Riviere and its 65-hectare vineyards for a reported ¤30 million (HK$318 million) with the aim of turning it into an elite tea- and wine-tasting retreat and plans to build a hotel nearby.

Gregoire himself had bought the property in 2003, a year after the previous owner died in a plane crash.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

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Bangladeshi workers still missing eight months after Rana Plaza collapse

Almost 200 workers are still missing from the Bangladesh factory that collapsed eight months ago, compounding the misery for relatives who have received little in the way of compensation.

More than 1,134 people died in the disaster on 24 April, mainly workers making clothes for sale on western high streets by retailers including Matalan, Primark and other household names. The tragedy was the worst industrial accident anywhere in the world for a generation.

The failure to finalise the death toll and to unite bereaved relatives with the remains of their loved ones will raise questions about the capacity of local authorities to effect the wide-ranging reforms of the garment industry that brands, campaigners, labour activists, consumers and local officials all say are necessary. The garment industry employs around four million people in Bangladesh and produces 80% of the country's exports.

In the days after the tragedy, more than 800 bodies were visually identified by relatives or by identity cards or other personal possessions, officials said. Their families received 20,000 taka (£160) for immediate funeral expenses from the local administration and later a further sum of at least 100,000 taka (£790) from a special fund set up by the Bangladeshi prime minister's office.

Relatives of victims who were identified have also received payment of outstanding wages by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and sums equivalent to monthly wage payments from Primark, the British retailer which sold clothes made in Rana Plaza. But those people whose family members are still officially missing have received almost nothing.

"I am still waiting for any compensation. They found my daughter's phone but nothing else, even though she had her identity card on her," said Abu Kashem Mollah, who last saw his daughter Pervin when she left their one-room home to walk to the factory where she and 3,600 others spent 10 hours each day stitching clothes for western retailers.

Mollah recalls that both he and his daughter were worried on the day of the accident. The previous day workers had been sent home early when cracks had been discovered in the walls of the nine-storey building.

"I asked her if she had to go … and she said that if she didn't go her pay would be blocked," Mollah, 57, said.

An hour later the news that one of the hundreds of garment factories in the neighbourhood had collapsed spread through its choked, narrow streets. Fearing the worst, Mollah ran to his daughter's workplace. Half of the building had fallen in. He found no trace of her. He has found nothing since.

"I have searched frantically. I have given DNA samples. I have given my phone number again and again at many different offices and to many different people but no one has contacted me. I can't understand it," he said.

Authorities are not always sympathetic. Officials at the BGMEA suggested that many claims were fraudulent. Mainuddin Khandakar, a senior home ministry official and author of a government report into the tragedy, blamed the victim's families.

"Even if there are some missing, that is because these are village people who are unclear about how they can properly trace [their relatives]," he said.

Most of the victims were young women from poverty-stricken rural areas who had come to Dhaka in search of work. Their relatives are ill-equipped to tackle Bangladesh's tortuous bureaucracy.

Though his daughter had completed secondary education, Mollah is illiterate and relies on his remaining children to decipher official documents.

But there are other explanations for his failure to find his daughter's body.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, technicians at Bangladesh's only DNA testing laboratory, a small facility set up and funded by the German government, were only able to take samples from half the 324 unidentified bodies buried by a local NGO at Dhaka's Jurain cemetery. Without more samples "further answers cannot be found," said Sharif Akhteruzzaman, who runs the laboratory.

There is another possibility too. In the chaos immediately after the collapse, many bodies were misidentified and handed over to the wrong families, according to Akhteruzzaman.

"When we investigated one particular claim we looked at four samples, and found three [of these four] bodies had been handed to the wrong relatives … so you can understand how far misidentification is possible," he told the Guardian.

Such continuing confusion has led to rumours that the government secretly disposed of hundreds of bodies to conceal the true toll of the collapse and limit compensation schemes. Negotiations are still continuing to establish the amount of compensation western retailers that were supplied by the factories in Rana Plaza will pay to survivors and families.

In September the global union IndustriALL called a meeting of some of the world's largest retailers in Geneva to discuss a £47.2m compensation fund for the workers injured in the disaster, and the families of those who died. Only nine brands using clothes from the factory attended. Union officials close to the talks say they are hopeful, however, that a deal will be concluded early next year.

An office has also been opened to help relatives and survivors by the Ministry of Labour in the suburb of Savar where the tragedy occurred. However, Massoum Billah, its co-ordinator, said he "had no real idea" what was being done to resolve the problem of the missing.

Mollah, the bereaved father of Pervin, said he simply hoped to return to his village, 150 miles from Dhaka, soon.

"As soon as I have sorted this out I will leave," he said. "There is nothing here for me now. Pervin went into work that day and they killed her."

Wednesday 25 December 2013

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