/ 20 May 2014

Turkey holds 24 on suspicion of negligence after mine disaster

Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson with women farmers at a harvest in Limpopo.
Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson with women farmers at a harvest in Limpopo.

Turkish police detained 24 people, including executives of the mining company Soma Holding, on Sunday as part of an investigation into the worst mining disaster in the country’s history.

Local media reported that Ramazan Dogru, the general manager of the mine, and its operations manager, Akin Celik, were among those being held on suspicion of “neglect and causing multiple deaths” after Tuesday’s explosion, which killed more than 300 people.

Rescue efforts were called off on Saturday after the last two bodies of trapped miners were retrieved from the rubble.

“Nineteen people have been detained as suspects. The interrogation of five of the suspects is ongoing,” Abdurrahman Savas, governor of Manisa province, said.

On Sunday, Turkish prosecutors said that three of those arrested are facing a charge of causing multiple deaths.

The arrests seems to signal a shift in relations between the mining company and the government. After the accident, questions were asked about mine owner Alp Gürkan’s political connections. His wife is said to be a local councillor for the governing party and his company leases several publicly owned coal mines.

‘A first-class workplace’
Soma has denied all accusations of negligence, with Gürkan insisting the mine was “a first-class workplace”. Speaking on Friday at the first press conference since the accident, Gürkan claimed his company had invested a lot of money to ensure the safety of workers. “We have spent our income to improve working conditions to avoid possible accidents,” he said.

Three weeks ago the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) rejected calls by the main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) for an investigation into safety deficiencies at the mine. The labour ministry said the mine was inspected in March and no problems were found.

Unions and opposition parties asked why government officials had not criticised Soma Holding in the days after the explosion in the mine. At a press conference on Friday, CHP deputy chairperson Faik Öztrak asked: “Is there an organic link between the operating company and the AKP? Why do the prime minister and AKP MPs use such a tolerant language towards them?”

He said the government had turned a blind eye to safety lapses and should bear some responsibility for the disaster.

The deaths in the Soma coal mine have stirred up fresh antipathy towards the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been criticised for last summer’s crackdown on protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and his increasingly intolerant stance towards any dissent. His comments that “this is what happens in coal mining” prompted a furious reaction in Soma, where he was confronted by angry protesters on Wednesday.

‘Necessary steps and measures will be taken’
One miner in Soma said the arrests suggested the company was being sacrificed to protect the government: “After the attacks on the prime minister on Wednesday, they are scared Soma will bring them down. Instead of a thorough investigation, they’ll pile all responsibility on to the shoulders of the company they used to be so close with.”

Erdogan’s deputy, Emrullah Isler, wrote on Twitter that the accident would be investigated. “In order for such pain not to be repeated, all necessary steps and measures will be taken,” he tweeted. “A legal investigation [into the incident] has been launched, and all those responsible, no matter who they are, will be punished. Parliament is also going into action.”

One member of the regional mining union Maden-Is said the arrests were a step in the right direction: “Everyone here knows that it is the company who is responsible for this accident. They should be punished for [their negligence].”

But he had little trust in the government and justice system. “We have seen this so many times over in Turkey,” he said. “Those who are powerful are rarely held accountable.” – © Guardian News and Media 2014