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Turkey cracks down on building contractors as quake death toll reaches grim milestone

<i>Hussein Malla/AP</i><br/>
AP
Hussein Malla/AP

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, CNN

Turkish authorities have arrested or detained a number of property developers as the death toll from last week’s catastrophic earthquake soared past 36,000.

The 7.8-magnitude quake that struck southeastern Turkey near the border with Syria last Monday has now caused 31,643 deaths in Turkey, according to the Turkish Emergency Coordination Center SAKOM on Monday. The number of dead in Syria now stands at 4,574, state media said Sunday.

Last week’s earthquake will likely become Turkey’s deadliest — a 1939 quake killed 32,962 people.

Emergency responders have been frantically working to reach residents trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey. In northwest Syria, rescue operations have now ended, the White Helmets volunteer organization said.

As families mourn the loss of loved ones, resentment has grown among those affected and many are now looking to assign blame for the extent of the disaster.

Crackdown on contractors

Amid growing public anger, authorities in Turkey are investigating 163 people in connection with building collapses. Of those under investigation, eight have been arrested and 48 are in police custody, according to Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu.

Eight were arrested pending trial, whose responsibilities were determined by public prosecutors, Anadolu reported. Authorities didn’t provide further details of what they’re being investigated for.

During a visit to Diyarbakir earlier on Monday, Turkey’s justice minister Bekir Bozdag said the public prosecutor’s offices in all earthquake-affected areas were conducting the 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 this information.” He added: “Audits are subject to the evaluation of this information, and our public prosecutors carry out investigations to determine who is involved in these constructions.”

According to Anadolu, prosecutors in the city of Malatya issued arrest warrants for 31 people on Monday over ties to collapsed buildings.

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

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

Mehmet Yaşar Coşkun, a contractor responsible for Rönesans Residence, a block of high-rise luxury flats which collapsed in Hatay province, was intercepted by authorities at the airport on Saturday while attempting to flee to Montenegro, according to Anadolu. He claimed that he did not know why his building collapsed and that his flight had nothing to do with the collapsed building. Another contractor, Mehmet Ertan Akay, whose Hatay residential building also fell has been arrested by Istanbul police, Anadolu also reported.

Another contractor, İbrahim Mustafa Uncuoğlu, was detained in Istanbul Saturday after his inspections of the collapsed Bahar Apartments, located in the earthquake’s epicenter of Gaziantep, were found to be negligent, Anadolu reported, citing the Gaziantep Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office. At least nine people died when that building crumbled.

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

The clampdown on contractors comes amid increased scrutiny over Turkey’s construction standards and building regulations.

Earthquakes are not uncommon in Turkey, as the country straddles multiple tectonic plates. However, last week’s quake was particularly destructive, with the 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 came into place following a devastating Izmit quake in 1999 in the Marmara region, which left more than 17,000 dead and around half a million people homeless. Many may view the detentions of contractors as an attempt from the government to shift responsibility for the extent of the disaster from the state onto individuals.

Man-made disaster?

After previous disasters, building codes were tightened — which should have ensured that modern builds would withstand large tremors. Yet many damaged buildings across the stricken region appeared to have been newly constructed. Residents and experts are now questioning if the government failed to take the necessary steps to enforce building regulations.

Yasemin Didem Aktas, structural engineer and lecturer 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 didn’t meet safety standards.

“What we are seeing here is definitely telling us something is wrong in those buildings, and it can be that they weren’t designed in line with the code in the first place, or the implementation wasn’t designed properly,” Didem Aktas said. “We are also seeing in Turkey quite commonly that post-occupancy modifications on buildings compromise their structural safety.

“These are the early days, hopefully we’ll be on the ground to complete our engineering assessments in due course but in the time being 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, forgave developers for constructing projects without the necessary safety requirements.

The amnesties were designed to legalize older sub-standard buildings that had been erected without the proper permits. They also didn’t require developers to bring their properties up to code.

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has frequently put construction at the heart of his economic development policies during his two decades as president and prime minister. The government’s amnesties over the years have often coincided with campaigning ahead of elections and have been seen by many as a way to garner votes.

Experts also say that contractors wouldn’t have been able to proceed with their projects if their substandard work hadn’t been potentially waved through by various local officials and suggested corruption was to blame.

Ajay Chhibber, an economist who was World Bank director for Turkey when the 7.6-magnitude Izmit quake struck in 1999, told CNN building amnesties were “a huge issue.”

“They just go ahead and make the building. They don’t follow the code. They know that at some point some politicians — because they’re financing their political parties — they’ll grant them an amnesty. That’s a huge problem.”

Chhibber added earthquakes don’t necessarily equate to widespread destruction as witnessed this past week. “It need not be a disaster to this 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 should have collapsed that easily. Some of them were built only a year or two ago,” he said.

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

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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