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Turkey’s once mighty developers under fire after earthquake

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Their mugshots are everywhere: a Turkish developer arrested while trying to flee the country and two colleagues connected to a luxurious apartment tower that crumbled in Monday’s disastrous earthquake.

The traumatized country’s social media users are calling for their heads.

Turkish officials are turning them into the focus of public outrage at the shoddy business dealings that appear to have contributed to the disaster’s almost unfathomable scale.

And architects view the Rönesans tower’s collapse as a symbol of Turkey’s inability to maintain building standards that could have dramatically reduced the catastrophic toll.

The number of confirmed fatalities surpassed 29,000 in Turkey and 3,500 in Syria on Sunday.

The quake has become the region’s deadliest natural disaster in more than 80 years. But officials at the United Nations warned that the final fatalities number may be closer to 50,000.

Turkish officials have responded to the outrage by announcing a rapid series of investigations and arrests linked to the construction and development business.

Three people were put behind bars by Sunday and seven more have been detained — including two developers who were trying to relocate to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Turkey’s justice ministry has issued warrants for 114 more people and launched 134 investigations.

‘Irregularities’

The problem for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government — in power for the past 20 years — is that the Ronesans case is far from unique.

Turkey has erected towers across fault lines and swathes of earthquake-prone regions that have been bracing for a major jolt for years.

One of the biggest single disasters struck a hotel housing two dozen Cypriot students and 15 accompanying adults who were in Turkey for a volleyball tournament.

All of the children died and only four adults survived.

NTV television said the hotel was briefly closed due to construction “irregularities”. But then it reopened its doors.

“I want these people to face justice. They are murderers,” an unnamed witness of the hotel’s collapse told NTV.

The quake tore off the building’s walls “like sheets of paper,” the survivor said.

Erdogan has responded to the anger by arguing that no one could have been prepared to deal with Turkey’s “worst disaster in history.”

But the waves of arrests and investigations represent a marked change in attitude towards an industry that has helped transform Turkey’s underdeveloped regions while enjoying a profitable boom.

Denials

Six months passed before Turkey arrested the first suspect in the wake of another disastrous quake in 1999.

More than 17,000 people died in the country’s northwestern regions near İstanbul at the time.

Officials eventually opened 2,100 investigations against developers of collapsed buildings. They did not lead to much.

A general amnesty in December 2000 saw 1,800 of those cases dropped.

The courts found fault in only 110 cases. Most of those found guilty ended up benefiting from a statute of limitation that entered into force in 2007.

The Ronesans project’s developer has also pleaded innocence.

“I do not know why the building collapse,” Mehmet Yaşar Coşkun said.

“All the permits were issued after studies by the municipality and the oversight company.”

A local mayor who issued the building permit in 2021 denied responsibility as well.

“A private company conducted the control procedure,” Seyfettin Yeral told the T24 news site. “We do not have employees who can do such work.”

California standards?

Turkey has adopted a series of building standards and regulations modeled on those of California.

But these have been regularly revised — the last time in 2018.

Engineers and architects interviewed by AFP said most of Turkey’s builders manage to work their way around existing codes.

“On paper, the standards are respected, with contracts awarded to private companies responsible for controlling them,” İstanbul architect Aykut Köksal said.

But Köksal stressed that developers often strike private deals with companies in charge of conducting the inspections.

He said this dilutes enforcement and gives developers much leeway to cut costs.

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