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A year after Turkey quakes, calls to hold officials accountable remain unanswered

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A year after powerful earthquakes devastated southern Turkey, officials have raised the death toll to more than 53,000 people. Many thousands more are still in temporary shelters. NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled to the earthquake zone, and he found that calls to hold officials accountable have, so far, gone unanswered.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Antakya is a city of about 400,000 people in Turkey's southernmost province. It was built on the site of the ancient city of Antioch, but much of the modern city crumbled a year ago in the February 6 earthquakes. These days, residents of Antakya wonder how much longer they'll be stuck in cramped shelters. Some are also wondering if any officials will actually be held accountable for the poor construction that left so many people at risk.

(CROSSTALK)

KENYON: In the Antakya farmers market, I met 24-year-old Mehmet Dok (ph), who says he's very unhappy to be still living in a shipping container. When asked who's responsible for the buildings that crumbled a year ago, he has an answer.

MEHMET DOK: (Through interpreter) Well, people are blaming the municipality, of course, because they are the ones who let you build a seven-story or 10-story building. Where do you get the license? You get the license from the municipality.

KENYON: This isn't the first time these questions have been raised. The deadly Izmit earthquake of 1999 sparked a public outcry against contractors, who were accused of using cheap materials and ignoring safety measures designed to resist earthquake damage. As for accountability, Turkey's Chamber of Engineers and Architects reported that over the years, more than 1,300 lawsuits were filed in the hardest-hit cities, but only 35 resulted in a conviction.

This year, prosecutors are trying to hold officials accountable with mixed results. They sought 22.5 years in prison for Okkes Kavak, a local mayor in Gaziantep Province. Kavak used to be a contractor, and 26 people perished in one of his buildings a year ago. But despite a pile of incriminating evidence, he was acquitted, only to be re-arrested after a public outcry. He was far from alone, however. Officials say, of the more than 1,700 collapsed buildings that caused fatalities, more than half were unlicensed structures.

Emma Sinclair-Webb with Human Rights Watch says, beyond contractors, public officials must also be investigated. She says mayors, city council members and planning departments across Turkey need to step up and really enforce building codes and standards.

EMMA SINCLAIR-WEBB: All of these people have a responsibility to do their job properly, to not cut corners, to not let their political relationships or their crony relationships with contractors influence their decision-making. And you know, this, for the public, should be a crucial issue in the upcoming elections.

KENYON: Sinclair-Webb says, under Turkish law, a public prosecutor has to get permission from the government to investigate a public official. She says that law has been used in the past to insulate officials suspected of misconduct.

SINCLAIR-WEBB: There's a big risk at the moment that that law will again be used to prevent public servants being properly investigated for their crimes in connection with this earthquake.

KENYON: Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his ruling party isn't at fault for the ongoing misery in parts of the earthquake zone. He blames what he calls a lack of vision among local leaders, most of whom are from the secular opposition party. It seems not even what the World Health Organization dubbed as Europe's worst natural disaster in a century is immune from Turkish politicking in the run-up to March's local elections. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN'S "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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