Turkey cracks down on contractors as earthquake death toll hits grim milestone

Last week’s earthquake is likely to become Turkey’s deadliest – a 1939 earthquake killed 32,962 people.

Repression against contractors

Amid growing public anger, Turkish authorities arrested dozens of contractors and detained many others accused of “negligence” in building collapses.

During his visit to Diyarbakir on Monday, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that public prosecutor’s offices in all earthquake-affected areas were conducting judicial investigations.

Bozdag explained that “some of the buildings are 30 years old, some are older, some are 20 and some were built more recently, so our municipalities have that information.” He added: “Audits are subject to evaluation of this information, and our public prosecutors carry out investigations to determine who is involved in these constructions.”

Bozdag previously revealed on Sunday that at least 134 people are being treated as suspects and are under investigation in relation to the construction of buildings destroyed during the earthquake.

“Three of those suspects were arrested pending trial, seven of them in custody, seven banned from travel,” Bozdag said. “Negligence detected, we will do what the law requires.”

An aerial view of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras on Saturday as search and rescue efforts continue after last week's devastating earthquake.

According to Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu, Malatya city prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 31 people on Monday in connection with collapsed buildings.

Nazmi Tosun, a construction supervisor and technical representative of the Emre Apartment which was destroyed in Gaziantep province, was arrested in Istanbul on Monday morning, Anadolu reported, citing security forces.

Several contractors believed by authorities to be responsible for several destroyed buildings in the city of Adiyaman were arrested Sunday at Istanbul airport as they tried to leave the country. Yavuz Karakus and his wife, Sevilay, who built several buildings in Adiyaman, were arrested, with Anadolu reporting that the couple had an additional $16,000 and 20,000 Turkish lira (approximately $1,061) with them at the time. Karakus told reporters: “My conscience is clear. I built 44 houses. Four of them fell down. I did everything according to the codes.”

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Mehmet Yaşar Coşkun, a contractor responsible for Rönesans Residence, a collapsed luxury apartment block in Hatay province, was stopped by authorities at the airport on Saturday as he tried to flee to Montenegro, according to Anadolu. He claimed that he did not know why his building collapsed and that his escape had nothing to do with the building collapsing. Another contractor, Mehmet Ertan Akay, whose Hatay residential building also collapsed, was arrested by Istanbul police, Anadolu reported.

Another contractor, İbrahim Mustafa Uncuoğlu, was detained in Istanbul on Saturday after his inspections of collapsed Bahar apartments, located at the epicenter of the Gaziantep earthquake, were found to be negligent, Anadolu said, citing the Gaziantep Attorney General’s Office. At least nine people died when the building collapsed.

Meanwhile, Hasan Alpargün, owner of a company that erected buildings that collapsed in the city of Adana, was detained in northern Cyprus on Saturday, Anadolu said, citing security forces. Prosecutors in Adana arrested 31 people as part of their investigation on Monday.

Cranes remove debris next to destroyed buildings in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, on Friday.

The crackdown on contractors comes amid heightened scrutiny over Turkey’s building standards and building regulations.

Earthquakes are not uncommon in Turkey, as the country straddles several tectonic plates. However, last week’s quake was particularly destructive, with United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths describing it on Monday as the “worst event in 100 years in this region”.

The country has strict rules that emerged after a devastating 1999 Izmit earthquake in the Marmara region that left more than 17,000 dead and around half a million homeless. Many may see the contractor arrests as an attempt by the government to shift responsibility for the extent of the disaster from the state to individuals.

Man-made disaster?

After previous disasters, building codes were enforced – which should have ensured that modern buildings could withstand major tremors. still many Damaged buildings across the stricken region appeared to have been recently built. Residents and experts alike are now questioning whether the government has failed to take the necessary steps to enforce building regulations.

Yasemin Didem Aktas, a structural engineer and professor at University College London, told CNN that while the earthquake and its aftershocks constituted “a very powerful event that would challenge even code-compliant buildings”, the scale of damage indicates that buildings did not meet safety standards. .

“What we’re seeing here is definitely telling us that something is wrong with these buildings, and it could be that they weren’t designed to code in the first place, or the implementation wasn’t designed correctly,” said Didem Aktas. . “We are also seeing in Turkey quite often that post-occupation modifications to buildings compromise their structural safety.

“These are early days, we hope to be on the ground to complete our engineering assessments in due course, but for now we can say they were definitely faulty,” she added.

Several critics are also questioning the Turkish government’s periodic approval of so-called “construction amnesties” – essentially legal exemptions that, for a fee, pardoned developers for building projects without the necessary safety requirements.

The amnesties were designed to legalize old and substandard buildings that were erected without proper permits. They also didn’t require developers to bring their properties into code.

The most recent building amnesty was passed in 2018 when the government said that over 50% of buildings in the country were known to be against the building code. The state identified that the vast majority of building violations occurred between 1950 and 2000.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often placed construction at the center of his economic development policies during his two decades as president and prime minister. Government amnesties over the years often coincided with the pre-election campaign and were seen by many as a way to drum up votes.
Turkey and Syria, hit by the earthquake, face years of reconstruction.  Experts say it didn't have to be this way.

Experts also say that the contractors would not have been able to proceed with their projects had their substandard work not been potentially rejected by various local authorities and suggested that corruption was to blame.

Ajay Chhibber, an economist who was the World Bank’s director for Turkey when the 7.6-magnitude Izmit earthquake hit in 1999, told CNN that construction amnesties were “a big problem.”

“They just go ahead and do the building. They don’t follow the code. They know that at some point some politicians – because they’re funding their political parties – will grant them an amnesty. That’s a big problem.”

Chhibber added that earthquakes do not necessarily mean widespread destruction, as witnessed last week. “It doesn’t have to be a disaster on that scale unless it’s man-made. And the man-made part comes from the lack of a proper building code being enforced. There’s no reason these buildings could have collapsed so easily. Some of them were. built just a year or two ago,” he said.

CNN’s Gul Tuysuz, Isil Sariyuce, Eyad Kourdi, Hande Atay Alam, Reyhan Baysan, Niamh Kennedy and Christian Edwards contributed to this report.

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