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Turkey begins trial over Soma mining disaster

The trial of 45 officials, accused of being responsible for the deaths of over 300 miners in Soma last year, has started in the town of Akhisar
Relatives of the Soma mine disaster victims arrive at the Akhisar High Criminal Court on 13 April (AA)

Dozens of suspects will stand trial on Monday over Turkey’s worst mining disaster in modern times, which left 301 miners dead in the western town of Soma and tarnished the image of the government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Forty-five people are to stand trial, including eight former top managers from the mine's owner, Soma Komur group, who are charged with murder.

The trial, which is expected to be lengthy with 487 civil parties and 436 witnesses, is being heard by a court in the town of Akhisar, around 50 kilometres from Soma in western Turkey.

The accident on 13 May 2014 raised new concerns about Turkey’s industrial safety record.

President Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, had notoriously appeared to play down the disaster, saying that “accidents are in the nature of the business” and comparing it to accidents in Industrial Revolution-era Britain.

The tragedy sparked protests that rattled the government a year after the mass anti-government rallies in Istanbul and elsewhere, with an advisor to Erdogan raising tensions by kicking a protester in Soma in an incident caught on camera.

The disaster happened when one of the pits of the Soma mine became engulfed by flames and carbon monoxide gas, trapping a team of some 800 miners working inside.

Prosecutors say that the miners were killed after inhaling gas and toxic smoke from the fire which was caused when an abandoned pile of coal left next to an electrical transformer caught fire.

Many miners died within minutes and only those working far from the centre of the fire managed to escape to the surface.

The body of the last miner missing was brought to the surface four days later, bringing the final toll to 301 dead and 162 wounded.

Inspection reports said the coal had been smouldering for days before the 13 May disaster, releasing toxic gases.

Danger of death

A report after the disaster found a long list of faults at the mine, including a lack of carbon monoxide detectors, shortage of gas masks in poor condition and bad ventilation.

Lawyers for the families of the victims say that the owners of the Soma mine had sought over-exploitation for the sake of profit, resulting in “working conditions worthy of slavery”.

“The management of the mine were perfectly aware of the danger of death which was hanging over the workers,” a lawyer of the victims, Selcuk Kozagacli, told AFP.

The eight top managers from Soma Komur on trial, including chief executive Can Gurkan and general manager Ramazan Dogru, have been charged by prosecutors with murder in an unusual move for an industrial accident trial.

Prosecutors have requested they be sentenced to 25 years in prison for every single one of the 301 victims.

The remaining 37 suspects face up to 15 years in prison for causing multiple deaths and injuries by negligence.

Other company officials have been charged with homicide by conscious negligence or reckless homicide, and also face lengthy jail terms.

For security reasons, the judge has ruled that the eight former managers incarcerated in Izmir will give their statements via video-link, according to Dogan News Agency.

Step toward justice

Human Rights Watch has welcomed the trial as a step toward justice for the victims but has also called for an investigation into state officials for failing to oversee safety measures.

“The Soma trial of mine company employees offers victims a chance to get some measure of justice, but the trial does not address the responsibility of state agents who failed in their duty to protect mine workers’ lives,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In expectation of possible tensions, police have been drafted in from surrounding regions to ensure order outside the court. A building usually used as a cultural centre has been turned into a court to accommodate the scale of the trial.

A month after the disaster, the government pushed through parliament a law aimed at improving Turkey’s standards of labour safety.

But Turkey was hit by a new mining disaster in October 2014 when 18 miners were killed after floodwaters engulfed their mine in the southern region of Karaman.

The country’s previous worst mining accident occurred in 1992 when 263 workers were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in Zonguldak in the north of the country.