Turkey on May 13 marked the sixth anniversary of the country’s deadliest ever mining accident, with the families of the victims visiting the graves of their beloved ones in the Soma district of the Aegean province of Manisa, amid coronavirus social distancing measures.
A commemoration ceremony was held at the graveyard in the mining town, where 301 miners lost their lives on May 13, 2014. The ceremony was attended by the families as well as several officials, including the local governor, mayor and representatives of various NGOs.
İsmail Çolak, the head of the Soma Coal Miners Assistance Association, slammed the judiciary system during the ceremony, saying that the Soma Coal Mining Company’s CEO Can Gürkan was released in 2019, despite having received 15 years in jail for his negligence in the disaster.
“I am just one of the 301 fathers who lost his child [in the mining disaster]. Six years on, our pains are still fresh…Can Gürkan, number one suspect in the case, has been already released and he has been provided with a license to operate a mine again, so he was given a document enabling him to do massacre,” Çolak said, adding that the association appealed Gürkan’s release at the Constitutional Court.
Gürkan was among five executives of the Soma Coal Mining Company who were sentenced for their role in the coal mine disaster. Gürkan was arrested pending trial in 2014 and four years later he was given a jail sentence of 15 years. On April 18, 2019, he was released by a court order.
Families, HDP say rest of mining executives will be released with early parole law
Çolak said that Turkish parliament’s recent approval of a legislation allowing thousands of convicts to be released has added to their pain. “We heard that the Constitutional Court started to discuss the file [of Gürkan’s release] at the beginning of coronavirus epidemic, but then the authorities have released these murderers, child sexual abusers, women murderers, looters causing workers’ deaths, swindlers, gang leaders and thieves under the Law on Execution of Sentences,” Çolak was quoted as saying by daily Evrensel.
“[With this new law] They have slaughtered us once again. We are never to accept this. Our pain is as fresh as the first day [that miners died]. We are conducting the 6th anniversary commemoration ceremony in a plain way due to the coronavirus,” he said.
Çolak was referring to a law which the Turkish parliament passed on April 14 reducing the time served by inmates to facilitate their early release, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Critics slam the law for excluding those jailed on terrorism charges, mainly journalists and politicians, but not those who are jailed for crimes such as operating a mafia crime ring or drug trafficking.
The law was drafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) released a statement on the anniversary of the mining disaster saying that the early parole law has “paved the way” for other Soma Coal Mining Company executives to be released.
The HDP said that the AKP is not undertaking sufficient measures to keep workers safe and is labeling workers’ deaths “as part of the profession’s destiny,” referring to a statement of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan back in 2014.
“The convicted prisoners of Soma [disaster] have been rewarded with the Law on Execution of Sentences, which has been issued as an amensty for the proponents [of the government], as the law paves the way for their release in the upcoming months,” the HDP said in its written statement.
The Soma disaster was caused by a fire that swept through the mine. It was Turkey’s worst industrial disaster and the world’s biggest mining disaster this century. The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide spread through the mine by the fire.
Critics said the accident showed the government was too close to industry bosses and was insensitive, after Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, said the disaster was part of the profession’s “destiny.”
Mine operator Soma Holding denied negligence, while the government said existing mining safety regulations were sound.
The Soma incident unleashed a wave anger against the government at the time, which was displayed during Erdoğan’s visit to the town a day after the devastating fire.
The image of Erdoğan’s aide Yusuf Yerkel kicking a man protesting has become a symbol of the anger felt against the government. The incident happened as Erdoğan was jostled by a large angry crowd as he tried to enter a building. As Erdoğan was forced to take refuge in a supermarket, demonstrators kicked his car. The government distanced itself from the incident, with one senior official saying the issue was Yerkel’s “own personal matter.”
Top court says rights of Soma mining disaster victims violated
A 2015-dated expert report on the mining disaster also attributes responsibility for the disaster to state inspectors and institutions with monitoring powers responsible for multiple failures in their duty of oversight. But the Labor and Social Security Ministry withheld permission to pursue a criminal investigation against officials.
The victims’ families took this issue to the Constitutional Court, which said in a ruling in March that the ministry’s refusal was violation of the victims’ rights.
The top court in its March 9-dated ruling made a reference the Article 17 of the Constitutional Law which says “Everyone has the right to life and the right to protect and develop his material and spiritual entity.”
The top court sent a copy of its decision to the Labor and Social Security Ministry as well as to local courts for the investigation process to be launched.
Workplace accidents have become more common in Turkey, where rapid growth in the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy and commodities demand. Critics say worker safety standards have not kept pace.
Turkey has a poor mining safety record, particularly its in its coal mines. Hundreds of miners are killed by accidents in the industry each year.
The government tightened work safety rule and imposed tougher penalties for breaches in 2014, six months after the Soma disaster. New measures include financial penalties and prison terms for those found liable in fatal accidents.