Turkish authorities have launched a crackdown on developers connected to buildings that were toppled by this week’s devastating earthquake as president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces growing discontent over the quality of construction in the stricken region.
The justice ministry has authorised almost 150 local prosecutors’ offices to set up earthquake investigation units to probe contractors, surveyors and other experts with links to destroyed buildings and ensure they do not flee or destroy evidence, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported late on Saturday.
In an indication that these legal processes are already underway, a contractor for a building of luxury flats in the hard-hit Hatay province in Turkey’s south was detained on Friday at Istanbul airport on his way to Montenegro, Anadolu reported. Prosecutors in Istanbul ordered the arrest after finding his flight plans, the agency said.
Erdoğan’s move comes after Turkish politicians this week vowed to investigate poor construction quality in the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed more than 22,000 people in Turkey and thousands more in neighbouring Syria. Turkish justice minister Bekir Bozdag said earlier this week that “all those who had negligence and fault will be held accountable”, according to Anadolu.
On Saturday, Erdoğan pledged to erect hundreds of thousands of seismically safe buildings within a year in a massive reconstruction effort.
“We will not leave any of our citizens, dead or alive, under the rubble. Then we will quickly begin removing debris and rebuilding activities. We are making plans to rebuild hundreds of thousands of houses of buildings and infrastructure, or rather, to establish anew our cities that were destroyed in the earthquake,” Erdoğan said.
“God willing, we will complete the construction and restoration work within a year.”
Around 14,000 rescuers are staging a last-ditch effort to find survivors five days after the earthquake but the situation in some areas is becoming fraught. Two groups of German rescuers were on Saturday forced to suspend operations in Hatay over security concerns, with one citing apparent “shots” heard in the area.
Some experts have urged the government not to quickly clear the rubble in order to collect evidence against property developers. Civil engineers have said many construction projects in Turkey’s south-east were undertaken with insufficient protections against ground-shaking in a region that is known to be vulnerable to earthquakes.
Vast building projects have been a hallmark of Erdoğan’s two decades as Turkey’s leader, but opponents have criticised repeated amnesties for poor quality construction and a penchant for awarding contracts to loyalists.
Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based think-tank Tepav, said he was sceptical that there would be any broad reckoning for the construction sector given its importance in Turkey, although a few “bad apples” were likely to be prosecuted. Construction accounts for around 5 per cent of Turkey’s economic output, according to official data.
Erdoğan is facing rising criticism both over building issues and the government’s response to the catastrophe, with some saying it took far too long for rescuers to get to the worst-affected areas.
The Turkish president hit out at critics on Saturday, accusing them of undermining national unity.
All Turkish universities will move to online classes for the rest of the academic year so that their dormitories can be used as emergency housing for those who lost their homes, he added.
On Friday Erdoğan conceded that the rescue had not moved sufficiently swiftly because of the sprawling area that was affected, bad weather and rescuers and their families also being hit by the quake, which was the worst natural disaster in Turkey in almost a century.
The earthquake struck during a hotly contested election campaign which many political analysts describe as Erdoğan’s toughest since ascending to power in 2003. Even before the disaster, his approval ratings had taken a severe blow as a result of the cost of living crisis, which has been worsened by his government’s unorthodox economic policies.