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Türkiye: Stonewalling on Charges for Officials in Earthquake Deaths

Authorities Refuse to Provide Information About Investigations


  • The absence of criminal proceedings against municipal officials in deaths stemming from the February 6, 2023 earthquakes, is deeply troubling and unacceptable.
  • Public officials for years have evaded responsibility to make sure buildings are safe, and the lack of investigations severely hampers proceedings in cases against private contractors.
  • The Turkish authorities should permit criminal investigation leading to prosecution of all officials responsible for earthquake deaths and those who failed to mitigate the deadly risk of such quakes.

(Istanbul, March 27, 2024) – The absence of criminal proceedings against municipal officials in deaths stemming from the February 6, 2023 earthquakes, is deeply troubling and unacceptable, Human Rights Watch and Citizens Assembly, a nongovernmental organization from Türkiye, said today. There has been little action despite evidence that officials authorized and approved defective buildings that collapsed, killing over 53,000 people.

Expert reports commissioned by public prosecutors in regions hardest hit by the earthquakes, and seen by Human Rights Watch, identify municipal officials, alongside private contractors and builders, responsible for defects in buildings that collapsed in the southeast city of Kahramanmaras and other places. Citizens’ Assembly has asked state authorities to provide information about the number of cases in which permission has been granted, as Turkish law requires, to pursue a criminal investigation against a public official. As of publication of this report, Citizens’ Assembly had received information that permission to investigate just three public officials has been granted, with the authorities for the most part refusing to provide answers.

“It is sobering for citizens in the earthquake-hit region to find out that cases against municipal officials who signed off on defective building projects seem to be barely moving forward,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Over a year after the earthquakes, the failure to demonstrate progress damages public trust in the government’s commitment to securing justice for the victims.”

A commemoration held in Hatay, Turkey on the first anniversary of the February 6, 2023 earthquakes. Survivors of the earthquake and families of victims are campaigning for all those responsible for defective buildings to be held accountable. The banner here reads “Is anyone hearing us?”  © 2024 Ugur Yildirim/ dia images via Getty Images

In January 2024, Citizens’ Assembly filed information requests with the Interior Ministry, governorates of the 11 provinces in southeastern Türkiye devastated by the earthquakes, and 46 relevant district governorates in those provinces. Citizens Assembly asked how many applications to pursue criminal investigations prosecutors had filed and how many investigations they had been permitted under provisions of the Law on Trials of Public Officials into current or now retired appointed officials and elected officials such as mayors and municipal council members for their role in licensing and overseeing deadly construction projects or failing to take adequate steps to mitigate the risk of harm.

While in four cases, governorates and a district governorate said that permission on whether to investigate is pending, Islahiye district governorate in Gaziantep province said that permission to investigate three public officials has been granted, and in two of those cases the decision is being appealed. The majority of authorities however failed to provide any data, claiming that such information falls outside the scope of permitted freedom of information requests or concerns confidential information.

Human Rights Watch also conducted research in the city of Kahramanmaraş, in Kahramanmaraş province, one of the places most affected, examining the progress of investigations and trials against private contractors and technical personnel responsible for collapsed buildings in which there was huge loss of life.

A man who was rescued from block E of the Kahramanmaraş Ebrar housing complex reflected the views of many, saying: “The first person I blame here is not the contractor. First of all, I blame those who gave permission to build the block. Whoever has the smallest finger in the permitting processes, allowed the building to be built, and turned a blind eye to its inspection, I blame them.”

Human Rights Watch examined 14 expert reports concerning large apartment buildings in Kahramanmaraş that collapsed, killing most of their residents, as well as six more concerning buildings in other provinces. Of the 14 commissioned by the Kahramanmaraş chief public prosecutor’s office from university construction engineering departments, all but one report point to serious failures by builders to adhere to applicable technical standards, with municipal building department officials apparently turning a blind eye by issuing building permits for flawed projects and later signing off on inadequate and unsafe finished construction.

These expert reports have provided the basis for indictments of private actors and give ample basis for investigations of public officials, many of whom are identified by name, Human Rights Watch and Citizens’ Assembly said.

On February 5, 2024, citing figures provided by prosecutors’ offices in eight provinces, Turkish media reported that 883 private developers, builders, and technical personnel are now on trial in connection with deaths in buildings that collapsed. In the trials now underway in Kahramanmaraş, a central pillar of developers and building teams’ defense has been that the municipality authorized their projects and building work and that the relevant municipal officials and other public authorities therefore bear responsibility for flawed construction.

The lack of investigations into public officials severely hampers proceedings in these cases, Human Rights Watch and Citizens’ Assembly said. Courts hearing the cases are being prevented from determining the full background of how builders on trial were able to flout applicable building regulations to secure permits, evade thorough inspection, and sell to the public buildings that were known to be unsafe.

Municipalities have also failed over many years in their duty to take bold steps to mitigate the risk of earthquakes to the local population, ignoring the recommendations outlined in the reports of Türkiye’s Disaster Management Directorate (AFAD). These reports have identified areas of cities at risk and in need of detailed ground studies and advised that municipalities should evacuate defective buildings.

“The Turkish authorities should permit criminal investigations capable of resulting in the prosecution of all responsible public officials alongside private actors for their role in earthquake deaths,” Williamson said. “Beyond that the government should undertake a wider inquiry into municipalities and any other relevant public authorities for their failure to take measures to mitigate the deadly risk of earthquakes, despite the available recommendations from Türkiye’s Disaster Management Directorate, AFAD.”

For detailed findings, please see below.

Deaths in Kahramanmaraş and the Search for Justice

The two earthquakes that struck on February 6, 2023, were centered on districts of Kahramanmaraş province in southeastern Türkiye and had a magnitude of 7.7 and 7.6 on the Richter scale. Over 53,000 people were killed during the earthquakes and their immediate aftermath, and hundreds of thousands more were injured and displaced across 11 provinces. The most badly affected provinces were Hatay and Kahramanmaraş.

According to a February 16, 2023 internal report by the national Building Works General Directorate of the Ministry for Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change, seen by Human Rights Watch, 1,670 buildings collapsed in Onikişubat and Dulkadiroğlu, the two central districts of Kahramanmaraş city where Human Rights Watch conducted research. On February 5, 2024, the Kahramanmaraş prosecutor’s office reported to the media that courts had accepted 70 indictments of private actors for their role, that 15 more indictments were ready, and that there were 152 defendants, of whom 10 were in pretrial detention.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 people including relatives of people who died, lawyers, an architect, construction engineers, a geological engineer, and city planners. The organization examined expert reports from university construction engineering departments commissioned by prosecutors investigating earthquake deaths, and met with a public prosecutor handling earthquake-related investigation cases in Kahramanmaraş.

Many of those interviewed noted the importance of investigations into private contractors and other private actors but pointed to the glaring lack of progress on holding the municipal and other public authorities to account.

Families of earthquake victims said that they had been given no information on when investigations into municipal and other public authorities might begin. Officials at the Kahramanmaraş courthouse and governorate verbally confirmed that although permission to investigate municipal officials had been requested, the Interior Ministry had not yet granted permission.

Human Rights Watch researched 11 buildings that collapsed in Kahramanmaraş, all but one of them built in the years directly after the deadly 1999 Marmara earthquake in western Türkiye that triggered stricter building regulations and in theory a greater awareness about the importance of adherence to building standards. While provisions of Türkiye’s building regulations that address mitigating the risk of earthquakes have been amended seven times, the February 6, 2023 earthquakes revealed a massive implementation gap, evident in widespread lack of adherence to safety standards.

Ebrar Housing Complex

While figures for the number of dead and injured in Onikişubat and Dulkadiroğlu districts are not publicly available, the highest number of deaths in a single site in Kahramanmaraş were in a housing complex in Onikişubat known as the Ebrar Sitesi (housing complex). Eighteen out of 22 blocks ranging between 8 and 11 stories and built between around 2000 and 2011 collapsed, killing at least 1,400 people. Human Rights Watch is aware of five ongoing trials of private developers and builders concerning deaths in individual Ebrar blocks that collapsed, but no investigations or prosecutions of public officials.

At least 1400 people died when apartment blocks belonging to the Ebrar housing complex in Kahramanmaraş city, Turkey collapsed in the February 6, 2023 earthquakes. © 2023 Kazim Kızıl

Human Rights Watch conducted a focus group interview with eight people whose relatives had died in the Ebrar complex as well as individual interviews with six more.

Sıla Danyeri, 20, a university student, lost her closest family members when the Hünkar Apartment in the Ebrar complex collapsed. “At first when I arrived at the scene I couldn’t even understand where our apartment was,” she said. “There were body bags everywhere, people waiting to be rescued, those hopeless screams…. The weather conditions … it was minus 2 or minus 3 degrees [celsius]…. And at first the voices from the rubble of people expecting help....”

After three days, the bodies of her parents and brother had been recovered and two days later, her paternal grandmother. Danyeri estimates that over 100 people died in the Hünkar Apartment.

A construction engineer, Cafer Nalçacı, 39, said that he had rushed to his older sister’s building, B block in the Ebrar complex, where 109 people died. He was able to locate his two nephews, but only rescue the older one. “We spoke to my other nephew for close to three hours as we attempted to rescue him. He was 14. We didn’t manage to save him.... At Ebrar there were no work machines, not even a hammer.” Nalçacı was only able to identify his sister’s body 42 days later via a DNA sample. Her body had been removed from the rubble and buried in an unnamed cemetery.

In some other cases, families were unable to find the bodies of their loved ones. Fadime Gökçe, 55, spent 10 days beside the rubble of E block, attempting to rescue her 26-year-old daughter Fikriye Aybüke Körük, who lived there. Despite reports at the time that Aybüke was rescued from the building and taken to a hospital, her whereabouts is unknown.

Along with others whose loved ones were never recovered from the rubble, Gökçe continues her search. “When I am in my house and I look out of the window I see the Ebrar complex,” she said.  “I see the collapsed buildings and I am waiting beside the rubble. I can’t get away from it, I am still there. There is no way to describe it.”

The Ebrar construction began after the municipality authorized the building to go ahead on soft fertile alluvial ground previously used for growing lettuce. Mehmet Kuruçay, a geological engineer who formerly headed the chamber of geological engineers in Kahramanmaraş, said that for years he had raised concerns about the failure to conduct proper ground studies to determine the suitability of the location for high-rise buildings. An architect who preferred to remain anonymous blamed the municipality for opening the area where the Ebrar blocks are built for development in the first place.

Human Rights Watch has seen six expert reports concerning Ebrar housing complex blocks prepared at the request of the Kahramanmaraş prosecutor’s office by the Karadeniz Technical University engineering department. The reports form the basis of the prosecutors’ case against contractors and their building teams. The expert reports identify a pattern of failure by the developers and builders to adhere to building standards applicable at the time of construction, lack of or inadequate ground survey reports prior to building, and an absence of effective oversight of projects by the municipal building license and control department.

Five of the six expert reports concerning blocks F, K, L, Reyyan Apartment, and Hünkar Apartment within the Ebrar complex attribute secondary liability for flawed construction to municipal personnel from the project licensing department and building control department who originally signed off on projects alongside private contractors held primarily liable. The sixth expert report concerning Ebrar block N (Berk Apartment) attributes primary liability to both the municipal personnel from the project licensing department and the private contractors.

Hamidiye, Palmiye, Penta Park, Ezgi, Fazilet, Sait Bey Housing Blocks

In another seven expert reports seen by Human Rights Watch concerning single multistory buildings and multiple block housing complexes in various locations of Onikişubat and Dulkadiroğlu districts, which collapsed killing hundreds of people, secondary liability is also attributed to municipal personnel. In the case of the Hamidiye, Palmiye and Fazilet Apartment blocks, primary liability is attributed to municipal personnel, alongside private contractors and personnel. So far trials have begun in the cases of the Ezgi and Sait Bey apartments.

The experts said in their reports that in some cases defects in the original building were compounded by later refitting the ground floors of buildings, removal of supporting columns and weight-bearing walls, and additions of mezzanine floors. It is the responsibility of municipality construction departments to ensure that such modifications are licensed and approved. From 2011 onwards, building controllers working for private building inspection companies have also played a role in overseeing the conformity of buildings and modifications to buildings with relevant regulations.

Nurettin Çağdaş Çakmak, 45, whose parents and other relatives died in the Fazilet Apartment block A in the Onikişubat district, said that the municipality had failed to meet its responsibilities over a period of 12 years, despite a court case initiated by apartment residents, to prevent the owners of a bakery from making unlicensed alterations to the ground floor of the building that fundamentally undermined its structure. Those alterations, he contended, contributed to the collapse of the building during the earthquake.

The Kahramanmaraş prosecutor has indicted the contractor as well as the owners of the bakery whose whereabouts are currently unknown.

The experts also found that the builders of the Fazilet Apartment did not adhere to the building regulations and said that municipal officials and private actors shared liability for the building’s collapse.

In the case of the 8-floor Ezgi Apartment, which collapsed, killing 35 of the 37 people in it at the time, there is strong reason to believe unlicensed building modifications played a role. Nurgül Göksu, 46, said that she spent 12 days at the site of the building from which the bodies of her son, daughter-in-law and 6-month-old granddaughter were recovered.

Seeking to understand what happened, Göksu found evidence that a key supporting column and parts of supporting walls had been removed when the owners of a restaurant café on the ground floor undertook refitting work with no municipal license. She also found that a complaint by the apartment manager to the municipality in 2021 had resulted in no action and the provincial directorate of the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change found no irregularities in the refitting work despite removal of the supports. The whereabouts of the café owners, who have been indicted, is currently unknown.

In the case of the one of two Penta Park apartment blocks that collapsed, killing 115 people, the expert report said it was not only lack of compliance with building standards in the original building but also unlicensed refitting of the ground floor by the Ziraat Bank that was responsible for problems. The municipality neither enforced the original standards nor prevented the unauthorized refit. A trial concerning deaths in the Penta Park blocks is scheduled for August 12.

Some blocks that were constructed more recently also collapsed, among them the Sait Bey apartment blocks, which were built in 2016 and subject to the private building control inspection system in place since January 2011, as well as inspections by municipalities.

Human Rights Watch learned from a construction engineer and two expert reports that floors of the Sait Bey apartments were built before the municipality had even issued a building license and before the works could be inspected. Instead of ordering the illegal construction to be demolished, the municipality building commission allowed the developer to continue.

Turkish Authorities’ Failure to Mitigate Risk of Earthquakes

Multiple public authorities share an obligation under Turkish law to protect the right to life by taking adequate preventive steps to reduce harm and mitigate risk. Türkiye’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, affiliated with the Interior Ministry, leads on disaster response in Türkiye, but its duties laid out in Presidential Decree no. 4, dated July 2018, include “ensuring coordination between the institutions and organizations that carry out the preparation and risk reduction before the occurrence of [disaster] incidents....”

In cases in which a municipality is alerted to areas at serious risk of natural disasters, high-level municipal decision makers bear the main duty of ensuring that preventive steps are taken to reduce the risk of harm to the local population. The law on municipalities (no. 5216) lays out municipalities’ duties in disaster management, including for making contingency plans in advance of disasters, and sole responsibility for identifying and, if necessary, evacuating buildings judged to pose a risk.

Concerning Kahramanmaraş, Türkiye’s government and local municipal authorities had sufficient information to know and to take steps to determine in advance that buildings in some areas of the province would not withstand a strong earthquake, the groups said. In 2020, the Disaster and Emergency Management agency (AFAD) published a detailed report on mitigating the risk of natural disasters in Kahramanmaraş, and Türkiye’s earthquake experts have issued repeated warnings over many years. Because the city was built on active intersecting fault lines, the agency warned, during an earthquake some alluvial areas of Kahramanmaraş would be prone to liquefaction of the ground, a process in which the soil literally assumes a liquid-like state, greatly increasing the likelihood of buildings collapsing.

A key recommendation advised that “to reduce loss of lives and property in the event of an earthquake, detailed ground studies of residential areas and the evacuation of buildings in dangerous areas is necessary … Earthquake-proof buildings with the right concrete structure and technical specification must be constructed at a distance from active fault lines and on stable ground.” The agency identified in its report the neighborhoods of Kahramanmaraş most at risk in this respect.

All those interviewed were aware of how little had been done by national and local authorities to carry out the agency’s recommendations by immediate evacuation and rebuilding of unstable structures.

Nebahat Paçala, 69, rescued from the rubble of the Selam Apartment in the Ebrar complex, said: “The disaster and emergency management presidency knew the risk of earthquakes, and all public officials knew that the buildings in this area were not durable, but no one did anything about it.” Experts such as a geological engineer and the two construction engineers interviewed in Kahramanmaraş expressed the same view.

Successive governments in Türkiye have dealt with the widespread practice of irregular and unsafe building activity by granting amnesty to contractors and others responsible for unlicensed construction or unauthorized refitting of existing buildings. The previous Erdoğan government passed the most recent of such amnesty laws in May 2018.

Experts have pointed out how deeply troubling and problematic pardoning those responsible for unlicensed and uninspected construction can be, in light of the well documented risk of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Investigation of Public Officials

The Law on the Trial of Public Servants, no. 4483, requires the government and state authorities grant prior administrative permission to investigate and prosecute a public official for crimes committed in the course of their public duty. Regardless of the weight of evidence, prosecutors cannot open investigations of officials on their own initiative but must first send preliminary evidence and recommendations for criminal investigation to the relevant administrative authority. The authority must then conduct a preliminary investigation of its own and decide whether to give the prosecutor permission to proceed.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly criticized this requirement. The court has found that the administrative bodies determining whether permission should be granted lack independence from the executive, and that there is inadequate judicial scrutiny of their decisions. This denies victims access to effective remedies. The issue of prior permission is particularly problematic in cases involving the liability of public officials for violations of the right to life.

In January, under the Right to Information Law, Citizens’ Assembly submitted 58 information requests – to the Ministry of Interior, the governorates of 11 provinces, and the district governorates of the 46 most damaged districts in those provinces – about the number of criminal investigations prosecutors have requested and the number permitted into current or now- retired public officials and elected political actors. The 11 provinces are Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Hatay, Adana, Kilis, Adıyaman, Osmaniye, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa, Elazığ, and Malatya

Although there is no legal obstacle to disclosing statistical information in response to access to information requests, on January 12, the Interior Ministry refused on several grounds to share such information. It cited articles 19, 20, and 21 of the Right to Information Law, which provide that information should not be shared if it conflicts with obligations to protect confidentiality, could jeopardize an administrative or criminal investigation, could lead to crimes being committed or jeopardize the prevention of crime and the capture of suspects, the right to a fair trial, and the right to private life.

On February 1, Citizens’ Assembly appealed the ministry’s refusal to provide statistical information. At the time of writing there had been no response to that appeal.

Seven of the 11 provincial governorates also refused to provide information on the basis of one or more of articles of the Right to Information Law cited by the Interior Ministry. An eighth, the Kahramanmaraş governorate, did not respond at all. Only three governorates – Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, and Adana – provided substantive answers.

On January 19, Şanlıurfa governorate informed Citizens’ Assembly that the prosecutor’s office had submitted four investigation permit requests and that the governorate had asked the Interior Ministry to assign an inspector to conduct a preliminary investigation into these cases. The governorate was also processing a fifth request from Birecik district. None of the preliminary investigations had been concluded and no investigation permits have yet been granted for any public official in Şanlıurfa.

On January 26, Gaziantep governorate informed Citizens’ Assembly that the four pre-investigation files had been completed and had been forwarded to the district governor’s office for a decision. In three other cases, the governorate itself had requested a pre-investigation and the process was continuing. In nine cases a pre-investigation request and request to appoint an inspector had been forwarded to the Interior Ministry and the process was continuing.

On January 11, the Adana governorate informed Citizens’ Assembly that it had communicated the information requests to the Adana district governorates with a request to reply directly to Citizens’ Assembly. Eleven Adana district governorates informed Citizens’ Assembly that no investigation permit process concerning public officials was underway or refused to answer. Seyhan district governorate stated that it could not reveal the content of 47 decisions from various dates since Citizens’ Assembly was not a party to the decisions, and Çukurova district governorate stated that it had not existed as a district at the time the relevant buildings that collapsed there dating from before 2008 were built.

Out of the 45 other district governorates Human Rights Watch approached, only three more provided substantive answers. The Hatay Dörtyol district governorate, on January 18, provided a detailed answer to the Citizens’ Assembly information request. In response to a prosecutor’s office’s request for permission to investigate three public officials named by profession, a request had been made to the Interior Ministry to assign an inspector to conduct preliminary investigations. In a February 1 response, the Malatya Akçadağ district governorate said that there had been no applications for permission to investigate in the district.

On March 26, the Gaziantep Islahiye district governorate sent a response saying that it had issued decisions granting permission to investigate three public officials and that in two of those cases appeals against the decisions had been lodged at the regional administrative court.  

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