The earthquake that struck Turkey last month was a natural disaster, but the staggering death toll is the result of construction firms dodging building safety regulations in pursuit of profit.

A girl stands amid the wreckage belonging to lost relatives on February 2, 2023, in Hatay, Turkey. (Umut Unver / dia images via Getty Images)

Wild chases in which criminals try to escape on luxury yachts and are stopped at the last second by police are usually seen only in films. In Turkey, however, these scenes took place in reality, shortly after two earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.7 and 7.6 shook the southeast of the country, as well as the north of Syria.

On the run were builders like Mesut Başkır, against whom an arrest warrant was issued for negligent homicide. Buildings constructed under his supervision in Kahramanmaraş province collapsed during the earthquake, burying their residents.

The official number of those killed by the earthquake stood above forty-four thousand as of February 26. Within the first two weeks following the disaster, 182 building contractors had been arrested, according to the newspaper Diken. The Turkish construction sector is known for its close involvement in the highest political circles, even beyond the Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime — but so far, no politicians are willing to admit responsibility.

After the 1999 earthquake, with its epicenter in Izmit, east of Istanbul, building regulations were tightened throughout the country. In 2018, standards for construction in earthquake zones were adjusted again. In theory, then, building safety is regulated. But the total number of collapsed buildings, and the fact that new buildings, in particular, collapsed like houses of cards suggests that compliance with standards was not checked or enforced. The power to inspect had been transferred from the public chambers to private companies, and so-called “construction amnesties” were issued — according to Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects’ Chamber of City Planners, to up to seventy-five thousand buildings across the affected earthquake zone in southern Turkey.

Instead of sanctioning defective buildings, this exempted those responsible from fines. Celal Şengör, professor of geology at Istanbul Technical University, called these amnesties “murder.” The week before the earthquakes, a new amnesty was being discussed in the Turkish parliament, which the government hoped would increase its support in the upcoming elections.

The combination of an eroded rule of law and the strong influence of the construction industry on political decision-makers endangered human lives. In the case of the Farklı Yaşam Rende housing estate in Antakya, residents’ legal struggle for building safety was willingly obstructed by the judiciary. The Cumhuriyet newspaper reports that load-bearing walls were removed from the lower floors of two of the four building blocks, with the enlarged area intended for use as a kindergarten.

In May 2016, lawyer Coşkun Atılğan filed a complaint against the developer and the landowner of the residence, after speaking to 144 families in the blocks. He applied to the Antakya municipality to deny permission for the buildings. The mayor of Antakya at the time was Ismail Kimyeci, himself an architect by profession. However, neither the city administration, the governor’s office, nor the prosecution office took action. The directorate of national education in Hatay also rejected Atılğan’s request not to approve the planned kindergarten.

In the end, more than a hundred people died in the rubble of these buildings after the earthquake. Less than an earthquake could probably have had a similar effect. So why didn’t the state take action?

As journalist Metin Cihan has revealed, both the builder Fevzi Yılmaz and the owner of the complex, Arif Sami Rende, had contacts in the AKP. Their local chairman, as well as AKP MP Sabahat Özgürsoy Çelik, visited Yılmaz in his office in January 2022. The fact that Atılğan’s application to the local authority of the Ministry of Education was unsuccessful may have been due to the fact that the operator of the kindergarten and daughter of the landowner, Hülya Rende, has ties to the minister of education, Mahmut Özer, who she had taught as a high school teacher in the 1980s.

The opening ceremonies of luxury residences that have since collapsed were attended by AKP MP Çelik and other politicians such as Hatay mayor Lütfü Savaş. Until 2013, Savaş was a member of the AKP, but then switched to the Kemalist Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP), which is currently the largest opposition party nationwide. He has been mayor of Hatay since 2014. For him, resigning after the earthquake would only be an option if all other mayors of the eleven affected regions also took this step. The newspaper Gazete Duvar reports that landowner Arif Sami Rende was arrested at the end of February.

Since the AKP came to power, the awarding of public construction commissions has been monopolized by the five big companies Cengiz, Limak, Kalyon, Kolin, and Makyol. In just ten years, they are said to have received $204 billion for various construction projects, including airports, roads, and bridges. The Gezi protests in 2013 began as protests against many of these construction projects and quickly developed into the largest civil society resistance against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP. In the “Taksim Solidarity” group, urban planners, architects, and environmental activists had already been debating the risks posed by the building boom in the years before. Some of the protest’s leading figures, such as urban planner Tayfun Kahraman and architect Mücella Yapıcı, were sentenced to prison last year.

Opposition members refer to the monopolists in the construction industry as the “Gang of Five” and accuse them of using some of their profits to buy political influence. Some AKP deputies even tried to ban the seemingly derogatory term by parliamentary decree. The fact that smaller, less influential builders were arrested quickly and with media attention after the earthquake is pure window dressing. Figures like Mehmet Cengiz, the founder and chairman of building company Cengiz, not only remain unchallenged, but are allowed to make generous donations on television for the earthquake victims, which the population pays back to them anyway as state subsidies and taxes.

Can one expect a government that issues amnesties for illegal, potentially life-threatening buildings to learn from its mistakes and erect safe buildings in the future? Probably not. The current government does not guarantee the basic right to safe housing. The close association between contractors and the AKP regime has had deadly consequences for tens of thousands of citizens, with hundreds of thousands more injured, homeless, or having lost their families. The reconstruction of the eleven effected provinces and securing of other potential earthquake areas must not be planned and implemented in the interest of the profiteers from the construction industry. It must serve the well-being of the people — without exceptions.

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