Turkey begins trial of public officials over mining disaster a decade after tragedy

In this file photo on May 13, 2016 in İstanbul, people hold placards reading "This is no an accident but a massacre" as they part in demonstration in memory of miners who died in an explosion at the Soma mine. OZAN KOSE / AFP

A Turkish court on Wednesday began to hear the trial of 28 public officials – including inspectors from two ministries – who are accused of responsibility for Turkey’s worst mining disaster, which took the lives of 301 miners in 2014, the Turkish Minute news website reported, citing the Deutsche Welle (DW) Turkish service.

In addition to the miners who died, 162 others were injured in a fire inside a coal mine in the Soma district of western Turkey’s Manisa province on May 13, 2014. The deaths were caused by carbon monoxide spread through the mine by the fire.

Fifty-one defendants including the executives of Soma Holding stood trial from 2015 to 2018 on charges that ranged from “killing with probable intent” to “criminally negligent manslaughter.” While the court acquitted 37 defendants in July 2018, it sentenced executives from the mining company to up to 22 years in prison for their role in the disaster.

The families of the victims were uneasy with the exclusion of public officials from the trial. They said their search for justice would not end without the prosecution of the public officials who they said failed to conduct adequate inspections at the mine, paving the way for the tragedy.

As a result they filed criminal complaints against the relevant public officials shortly after the disaster but faced resistance from two ministries.

An expert report drafted in 2016 found negligence and fault on the part of energy ministry and labor ministry officials. “The institutions in charge of supervision turned a blind eye to issues contrary to legislation and mining techniques,” the report said.

In Turkey the investigation and prosecution of public officials for crimes committed in the course of their duties is subject to a law requiring 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.

After the ministries refused to authorize an investigation into the public officials, the families of 12 miners who died in the disaster filed an individual application with the Constitutional Court. The court paved the way for the prosecution of the officials in January 2020, ruling that the miners’ right to life had been violated.

An investigation was then launched by the Soma Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office into 28 public officials who were responsible for inspection of the mine in line with the relevant work regulations. The indictment drafted by the prosecutor’s office was completed in December 2023.

The indictment, which charged the suspects only with “abuse of public duty,” and not more serious charges such as “causing the death and injury of more than one person with conscious negligence” and “killing with probable intent,” drew criticism from the victims’ lawyers.

Manisa Bar Association president Ümit Rona, who spoke to reporters in front of the Soma Courthouse, said it was shameful for the Turkish judiciary that the trial of public officials could only begin nine years, 360 days after the mining tragedy.

He said the ministries’ refusal to allow an investigation into the relevant public officials led to the long delay in the trial.

Rona also said the statute of limitations is out of the question in the trial.

The Soma court adjourned the proceedings until September 12 after refusing a request from labor unions and bar associations to become co-plaintiffs in the trial.

3 defendants released in Amasra mine trial

Meanwhile, three defendants who were on trial due to another mine disaster in 2022 near the small coal town of Amasra on Turkey’s Black Sea coast were released from pretrial detention on Wednesday at the seventh hearing of their trial.

A methane blast that ripped through the mine in Amasra, operated by the state-owned Turkish Hard Coal Enterprises (TTK), claimed the lives of 43 miners and injured nine on October 14, 2022.

Twenty-three defendants are standing trial at a court in the northwestern province of Bartın, seven of whom had been under pretrial detention.

The Bartın court also adjourned the trial until August 6.

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