Lawyers seek justice in Turkey’s earthquake ruins

The Turkish lawyer adjusts his helmet and digs a little deeper into the rubble to find evidence that last month’s earthquake disaster did not have to claim as many lives.

Using pens and coins, Ahmet Kandemir and dozens of other members of Turkey’s Bar Association measure the thickness of support pillars, trying to secure evidence before it disappears in clean-up operations.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks killed more than 46,000 people in Turkey and nearly 6,000 in neighboring Syria last month.

Turkish police have arrested 269 suspects as part of a growing investigation into contractors who have erected shiny towers in one of the world’s most earthquake-active zones.

But critics worry about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close ties to the construction sector – and what impact that might have on his government’s willingness to prosecute for negligence.

This puts additional pressure on Ahmet Kandemir and the other lawyers who have volunteered to bring justice to families who thought they would move into houses that could withstand a major quake.

“We are checking the construction material and the thickness of the steel,” Kandemir told AFP.

“We write down the house number, record whether there were dead or injured inside, the damage status and send all the data to the bar association,” he said.

“We check the rubble before it’s lifted so the evidence doesn’t disappear,” said fellow attorney Firatcan Kaliz.

– ‘Garden of Heaven’-

Turkey’s Bar Association has a difficult relationship with the Erdogan government, which accuses right-wing groups of stifling democratic freedoms and mired in corruption.

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Many of its members have been self-examined. But the lawyers are greeted with hope on the streets of Antakya.

“I’m uneducated,” said Omer Unsaldi, a 67-year-old who lost 14 family members, through tears.

“I don’t know where to go. But they are educated. They will help us and guide us,” he said, gesturing to the lawyers.

The story goes on

Despite their efforts, some of the key evidence seems to have already disappeared.

Ronesan’s Residence, a luxury complex whose list of prominent residents included former Ghana international Christian Atsu, became a symbol of construction failure when it collapsed like a house of cards.

Atsu was one of hundreds who died under the rubble of the 12-story apartment block built in 2013.

The date is significant as by then Turkey had updated its building standards and modeled them on those of seismic California.

AFP journalists who visited the site this week saw that almost all of the debris had been cleared.

In contrast, suitcases, family photos, and toys remained mixed up in the ground.

Kandemir said the Bar Association has received numerous appeals from the victims’ families, who have been told their building is earthquake-proof.

“They call and say the apartments have been advertised as ‘gardens of heaven’ that could withstand even a 9.0 magnitude earthquake,” he said.

“So many were killed. Those injured had their arms and legs amputated. There are great complaints.”

– “We are all responsible” –

The main contractor involved in the Ronesans residence was arrested at Istanbul Airport last month while attempting to leave the country.

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His arrest made headlines across Turkey, where nearly all media outlets are under direct or indirect government control, and sparked speculation that officials were looking for scapegoats for the disaster.

Rustu Kanli, another local contractor, said property developers, municipalities and the government were all responsible for the high death toll.

“The communities have allowed five or eight additional floors to be built on top of what should have been a three-story building,” Kanli told AFP.

“Ministries have been slow to react. There should have been proper reviews,” he said.

“We can’t be the only ones to blame here,” the contractor said. “We are all responsible.”