The Turkish government has an obligation to ensure that public officials responsible for thousands of defective buildings that collapsed in the February 6, 2023 earthquakes, are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said today. The earthquakes, which devastated Türkiye’s southeastern provinces, left more than 50,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands injured and displaced.
Trials of real estate developers, building controllers, and technical personnel have opened in recent months. But not a single public official, elected mayor, or city council member has yet faced trial for their role in approving numerous construction projects that fell far short of safe building standards or for failing to take measures to protect people living in buildings known to have structural problems in a region with a high risk of seismic activity.
“On the anniversary of the devastating February 6, 2023 earthquakes, the Erdoğan government should focus not just on rebuilding, but on ensuring that those who authorized and built homes, hospitals, and hotels that turned to graves when quakes struck are held to account,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No construction work can happen without the authorization of municipal and provincial authorities, so their officials should be investigated and held to account.”
Human Rights Watch has examined indictments and news reports and spoken to lawyers concerning buildings that collapsed in the February 6 earthquakes. The defendants in individual trials, typically numbering between 6 and 12, are listed as real estate developers, privately employed building controllers and site managers, and other technical personnel.
In the majority of cases examined, the defendants are charged with the crimes of “causing death and injury by foreseeable negligence,” a crime punishable with a prison sentence ranging from 2 to 22.5 years. In earlier trials of developers and builders responsible for buildings that collapsed in earthquakes killing their occupants, courts have imposed penalties at the lower end of the scale or converted them to fines.
In the cases examined, there is either no mention of an investigation into public officials or the indictment makes a reference to any investigation files concerning them having been separated out, with no indication of whether the prosecutor has yet applied for and received permission to investigate any public official.
In Türkiye, the investigation and prosecution of public officials for crimes committed in the course of their duties is subject to a law requiring state government authorities, depending on the status of the individual in question, to grant permission for the process to start. Prosecutors have no right to proceed with an investigation without this permission, regardless of the amount or quality of evidence implicating a public official in a crime. They must first send the evidence recommending criminal investigation to the relevant administrative authority, which will then conduct a pre-investigation of its own to determine whether to give the prosecutor permission to proceed.
Public officials play key roles in construction. Elected mayors, elected members of municipal councils appointed to municipal planning commissions, public officials in the planning and building departments of municipalities, and those in the provincial departments of the environment and city planning are responsible for approving construction plans, granting building licenses, overseeing construction to ensure conformity with plans and adherence to technical specifications, and signing off on the safety of buildings.
These public authorities have an obligation to diligently exercise these duties to ensure conformity with building standards set out in laws and regulations, and criminal investigation and prosecution for failure to adequately perform their duties should not lag behind the trials of private actors, Human Rights Watch said.
Türkiye has a history of failing to ensure that both private and public sector actors responsible for defective construction projects that have collapsed in earthquakes have been held accountable for their failures. Regarding the 1999 earthquake in the Marmara region of western Türkiye, in which at least 17,480 people died, media reported on the very limited and slow proceedings against both private and very few public officials charged with misconduct. Most cases resulted in penalties being converted to fines or trials being dropped when they exceeded the statute of limitations.
Professional bodies such as the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects have also condemned the impunity resulting from flawed and timed-out trials of those responsible for substandard building practices that proved lethal when the Marmara earthquake struck.
As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Türkiye has positive obligations to protect the right to life (article 2), in the context of any activity, whether public or not, in which that right may be at stake. These positive obligations extend to having a regulatory framework in place to protect against foreseeable risks to life and to enforcing that framework, including through effective criminal law provisions to deter breaches that would endanger the right to life. There is also a procedural obligation to conduct an effective official investigation, not only when individuals have lost their life or sustained life-threatening injuries at the hands of state agents, but also in circumstances alleging negligence on the part of the state.
In one case concerning six deaths in two housing estates where 195 people died under the rubble during the 1999 Marmara earthquake, the European Court of Human Rights found Türkiye to have violated the right to life, notably through the failure to conduct effective criminal investigations into the responsibility of public officials for supervising and inspecting buildings that collapsed. The court has repeatedly criticized the Turkish legal requirement for prior permission to prosecute public officials.
The court has found that the administrative bodies determining whether or not permission should be granted lack independence from the executive, and that there is inadequate judicial scrutiny of their decisions. The issue of prior permission is particularly problematic in cases involving the liability of public officials for violations of the right to life, Human Rights Watch said.
“Türkiye has a shocking history of impunity for both private actors and public officials when it comes to preventable deaths in earthquakes, and this needs to change,” Williamson said. “Families have been traumatized by the loss of loved ones and no court decision will bring back the dead, but at the very least they deserve to see all those responsible held to account as well as other steps taken to protect lives in the future.”