Day 8: Erdoğan gov’t denies responsibility in deadly accident

Eight people were arrested on Monday in relation to the catastrophic mining accident in Soma, a district of western Manisa province, which has claimed 301 lives, but not a single politician has yet resigned or faced an investigation over the disaster.

A fire that started in the mine rapidly depleted oxygen in the shaft causing the deaths of the miners from carbon monoxide poisoning. The cause of the fire is not yet clear.

Twenty-five people were detained on Sunday in relation to the accident that occurred on May 13, including Soma Holding CEO Can Gürkan, who is also the vice president of the company, and the son of Soma Holding owner Alp Gürkan. The suspects testified on Monday to Akhisar Chief Prosecutor Bekir Şahiner. Six people, including Operations Manager Akın Çelik, who had participated on May 16 in a fractious press conference held by the company executives have been arrested. Several, including Can Gürkan, were released, but might face charges later, while several others were released without charges. The suspects are accused of causing the death and injury of more than one person through negligence. Later on Monday, authorities detained Ramazan Doğru, Soma Kömür İşletmeleri Director General and referred to him to court after interrogation for arrest. Doğru told prosecutors during the interrogation a document that shows him responsible for the mining company is “fake.” On this development, the court ordered the arrest of Gürkan. Earlier in the day, the mine technician Mehmet Ali Günay Çelik was also arrested. With the arrest of Gürkan, the number of arrested suspects reached eight for Monday. 

Can Gürkan told journalists outside the courthouse, “We will speak when the time comes.” 

A lawyer for the company who attempted to make a press statement regarding recent reports that toxic gas levels in the mine had exceeded the norm in the mine days before the fire was prevented from completing his statement by angry residents outside the Soma Courthouse. Riot police tightened security outside the courthouse after the lawyer ran inside.

However, many feel the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, under which Turkey has seen rapid economic development with work safety legislation failing to catch up, also has a responsibility in the devastating accident. The party was swept to victory in the March 30 elections, garnering 43 percent of the total vote, less than the 49 percent the party had gotten in the general elections of 2011.

There have been claims of close ties between Soma Holding and the government, although Soma Holding owner Alp Gürkan has denied that. According to Turkish newspapers, Soma Holding has won TL 70 billion worth of state contracts over the past seven years. The wife of one of the executives of Soma Holding is an AK Party city council member and has a seat on the board of directors of the company. Also the mine in Soma belongs to the state-owned Turkish Coal Enterprises (TKİ), which means the state has the primary responsibility in the accident.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who will likely run for president in the first direct presidential election in August, has also angered Soma residents, saying such disasters are usual in the mining business and citing mining accidents from two centuries ago where massive deaths occurred as examples. He also allegedly punched a protester during a visit to the area. A close aide of the prime minister was photographed kicking a protester on the ground being held down by two gendarmes.

But others note even without any controversial ties, the prime minister bears responsibility. Soma Holding was only operating the mine as a subcontractor, made possible in 2003 by a law adopted by the government on “service procurement” from private companies. The Taraf daily quoted Mehmet Torun, the former head of the Mining Engineers Chamber, saying that Soma Madencilik A.Ş., the Soma Holding company that operates the mine, had been put in charge of the mine through service procurement, with the TKİ guaranteeing to purchase all the coal extracted from the mine. “As such, Soma Madencilik A.Ş. is working as a subcontractor for the TKİ. This system was brought to the mines in 2003 under the AK Party,” Torun said.

Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Umut Oran submitted a motion in Parliament on Monday regarding a report prepared by the Presidency’s State Inspection Board three years ago on a mining accident in 2010, laying out the flaws in the mining industry regarding worker safety. Oran demanded to know the reason why Energy Minister Taner Yıldız has failed to remedy the problems addressed in the report.

Oran also noted that one year after the release of the report, the Prime Ministry became the sole authorized office to issue mining permits Oran asked whether Yıldız or Prime Minister Erdoğan were planning to resign.

Engin Altay, a CHP deputy chairman, has told Today’s Zaman that his party will work to ensure that those that have political responsibility won’t be allowed to get away with it. “We are currently bringing the issue to Parliament within the limits set by the parliamentary charter,” he said. Altay said both the energy minister and the minister of labor and social security should resign over the incident.

Other sources have said the CHP will be initiating a motion of censure against the two ministers.

A deputy leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Yusuf Halacoğlu, said the prime minister, or at least the ministers, should have resigned over “the highest loss of life in our mining history.”

“They cannot get away with laying this on the company,” he said.

However, he said he doubted the parliamentary oversight mechanisms will work given the powerful AK Party majority in Parliament. The ruling party has 313 seats in the 550-seat Parliament.

Ünal Demirtaş, a lawyer who represented the victims’ families in the trial regarding the deaths of 30 miners in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak in 2010, said expert reports usually decide the fate of such trials. He also said Soma wouldn’t have happened if those responsible could have effectively been tried in Karadon, the site of the mine disaster in Zonguldak. 

He said in work accidents, the “unavoidability principle” defined in the law usually helps companies get away with negligence. “The unavoidability element means this would have happened regardless of any measures we might have taken.” He said in such major accidents, the unavoidability principle is often applied in Turkey.

Demirtaş also noted that mine operator Alp Gürkan is a member of the academic council of the İstanbul Technical University (İTÜ) faculty of mining. “Because the testimonies of witness experts are extremely crucial in mining accidents, mine owners are interested in the mining departments of universities.”

Demirtaş said in 2004, changes to mining laws noted that mining licenses were left to the approval of the prime minister without a tender. “It is impossible for companies to work at these mines without being close to the government,” Demirtaş said, adding that the main purpose of the change in 2004 was to make larger profits from mine companies and create pro-government companies.

“The AK Party distributes coal to the poor. These service acquisition contracts are based on a completely win-win basis. The state guarantees to buy coal at a certain fixed price, and so the company owner tries to reduce costs to profit at that price. This is why work safety investments are ignored.”


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
This entry was posted in Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s