‘Pınar Gezer, wife of Zeki Gezer’, ‘Nursel Kocabaş, wife of Mustafa Kocabaş’, ‘Ismail Çolak, father of Ibrahim Çolak’. One by one family members call out their own names and the names of their loved ones, miners who lost their lives in the biggest mine accident in Turkey’s history. It goes with a ceaseless and collective sobbing.
Some cannot stop themselves from shouting a few angry words to the suspects, even though the judge warned them not to do so: ‘I hope that Allah will give you the same punishment as you have given me,’ Hüsniye Coskun, who lost her husband Zeki, shouts. The mix of intense grief and anger creates an emotion-laden atmosphere in the packed courthouse, which normally serves as a cultural centre. Judges, lawyers, gendarmerie and the suspects listen silently, some of them with wet eyes.
301 miners died on 13 May 2014, when fire broke out in the Enyez-coal mine in Soma. Almost a year later their families face with the people who they believe are responsible for the death of their husband, father, brother, son. 45 employees of Soma Holding, the company who ran the mine, stand trial at the higher criminal court in Akhisar, 40 kilometer south of Soma. After eight court days the judge demands sentences varying from 32 months to lifelong imprisonment. The indictments differ from first-degree murder to murder by deliberate negligence.
The trial commenced in tumultuous fashion. Initially, only 33 of the 45 suspects were present in court, stirring the anger of the families. The judge had decided, citing security considerations, to let the eight suspects in pre-trial detention follow the case through a video connection. It led to a courthouse with over two hundred of angry family members who demanded the eight to be brought to court.
When one guy expressed his anger physically, the counselors of the suspects left the courthouse to make way for a peloton of riot police that entered the courthouse in full riot gear. When all the consternation faded away the lawyers of the families insisted on their demand that the eight suspects in prison, including CEO Can Gürkan, would be brought to court. After a short break the judge met their demand.
Selçuk Kozağaclı, representing the families of the miners, holds ambivalent feelings about the court case that will continue on August 18: ‘The families have shown that they can, notwithstanding their emotions, seek justice in an orderly way. I’m very proud of them. I’m not happy about the fact that the case so far hasn’t shed light on the relation between Soma Holding’s management and the government. Now certain people who bear responsibility escape their punishment,’ Kozağaclı said. A highly contentious law enables public officials to escape prosecution.
Gülten Kavas, who lost her husband Ali, tells what the court case means to her: ’I want all people responsible to get the highest possible punishment. Only when that happens this country can show that it has some respect for human dignity. When I buried my husband I buried my own soul with him. Believe me, since then it’s difficult for me to live on. I only do so for my daughter, who together with 431 other children lost her father. At his birthday she embraced his grave and said: ‘Daddy, I told you you shouldn’t have gone to the mine. The money you had was enough for us.’
The families are connected in their anger and their desire to find justice for their loved ones. Even though the state offered them ‘compensation money’ (roughly 36.000 British pound), they feel abandoned; by the state, the media, but also by the local community. Pınar Gezer, who works in the breakfast salon of her cousin, bought a new house and a car from the money she received. ‘These are basic needs, but they’re both bought from blood money. Instead the state should have taken precautions to prevent such a disaster from taking place. That’s what I’m fighting for as well. In the first place I fight for my husband, but secondly I’m seeking justice because I don’t want other workers to end like my husband,’ Gezer said.
Occasionally she encounters angry gazes while walking down the streets of Soma. People envy her new house, she suspects. Once a miner asked her why she is putting so much effort in the court case. Gezer was left in dismay: ‘I felt so desperate when he asked me that. I almost slapped him in the face, but luckily I could restrain myself.’
During the anniversary of the disaster a big march throughout the Soma city centre was organised by the Association for Social Rights (Sosyal Haklar Derneği). The association offers judicial and psychological support and makes sure the families were well-organised and informed in the run-up to the court case. During the march, attended by a several thousands of people, two of the catchiest slogans addressed the observing crowd at the sidewalk: ‘Soma don’t sleep, protect your miners,’ and ‘Don’t be silent, if you’re silent you’ll be next.’
‘Soma’s sociology is very interesting,’ Kamil Kartal says with a feel for understatement. Kartal, a former trade unionist, came to Soma right after the disaster took place and he founded the Association for Social Rights. ‘Because the families of the victims weren’t able to organise themselves we did it for them. We try to do the same for miners, but that not so easy. A culture of fear is rampant and everybody is afraid to lose his job.’
As a miner in Soma, very little is needed to lose your job. Five months after the disaster in Soma, a second big mine disaster took place in the eastern town of Ermenek. A group of miners in Soma decided to travel to Ermenek as a gesture of solidarity to their colleagues who lost their lives. Upon arrival back in Soma the miners found their their access cards to the mines they worked for blocked. They were no longer welcome at their job.
Soma is a city with 100.000 inhabitants and the mines are virtually the only opportunity for employment. The population is generally of lower socio economic status, traditional and conservative. They welcome any opportunity for work, regardless the circumstances. Several months after the mine disaster 47 percent of the city voted for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the presidential elections. Just after the disaster, Erdoğan, at the time prime minister, had called the disaster the ‘fate’ of a mine worker.
Ӧzgur Ӧzel, MP for the Republican’s People Party, had warned months before the disaster for the dangerous circumstances in the Enyez-mine. When he recalls Erdoğan’s remark he still gets angry: ‘This disaster happened because the government is only interested in profit, rather than in people. The state is the sole customer of Soma Holding and shares close connections with the people running the company. It has deliberately failed in monitoring and creating safe working conditions. That has nothing to do with fate, but everything with wildly profit-driven policy.’
Reports of the disaster by Turkey’s Ombudsman Institution, the Turkish Union of Bar Associations and a parliamentary commission all show a structural negligence on behalf of the state and Soma Holding concerning the provision of safe working conditions. In September 2014, Turkish parliament passed a law to improve working conditions in mining. Last March, Turkey ratified an ILO convention regarding safety and health in the mining industry.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the ratification of the ILO convention is a positive step. At the same time, she points out that it won’t solve Turkey’s structural problems: ‘The problem in Turkey is not the lack of legislation, but the lack of implementation of legislation. That’s why the number of occupational murders in Turkey is still way too high. As long as the government doesn’t take its responsibility in implementing its own laws, that won’t change.’