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Public outcry in Turkey puts managers in court over Soma mining disaster

Eleven months after 301 coal miners died in Turkey, managers and inspectors are standing trial for negligence. But families have criticized the government for shielding state institutions tasked with worker safety.

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Turkish starts trial into Soma mining disaster

Mining is a dangerous profession. Last year in Turkey, more than 300 miners were killed in separate incidents, causing anger and grief throughout the country and family members and rights advocates to ask hard questions of mine owners and government inspectors.

The most deadly incident by far was May 13, 2014, when an explosion inside a coal mine in Soma in Turkey's Manisa province trapped - and ultimately killed - 301 miners.

A deadly incident followed in October, when 18 coal miners drowned after their mine shaft flooded.

All in all, 2014 was one of the deadliest years for work-related deaths in Turkey in a decade with 1,886 killed, according to the independent Monitoring Committee on Labor Health and Safety in Turkey (ISIG).

But despite the outcry that followed at Soma and other sites, this year is on track to be at least as deadly, according to a March report published by ISIG.

"At least 351 workers died in Turkey in the first three months," Asli Odman, a member of ISIG who lectures at Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, told DW. "Workplace accidents are not an exemption, but a rule - even a direct outcome - of the working conditions of the superficially prosperous, booming Turkish economy."

Government under pressure

Erdogan in Soma 14.05.2014

Erdogan paid a visit to Soma after the accident

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now faces intense pressure to improve safety. The party rose to power in 2002 on a platform of boosting Turkey's religious underclass, which had been traditionally exploited and marginalized by the country's secular elite.

These work-related deaths victimize members of its core constituency, that it has long campaigned to champion. So with a general election in June, the party has not been able to ignore tragedies at Soma, and Turkey's leader vowed to bring those responsible to justice.

"God willing, everyone will draw the necessary lessons from this disaster," then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - now president - said in the immediate aftermath of the Soma disaster, after initially drawing ire for suggesting the death of the miners was akin to a natural disaster.

"No one will be able to cover up this painful incident. The necessary criminal and administrative investigations will be carried out, and we will be strictly monitoring them," Erdogan added.

It is against that background that 45 individuals - comprising the head of the company, its managers and technicians - will go on trial on Monday (13.04.2015) in the town of Akhisar for the negligent deaths of the 301 miners.

Only eight defendants will be physically present, citing security fears, with the remainder testifying by live video conference.

That aside, rights groups complain that none of the accused include state inspectors or their political bosses - who had given the Soma mine a clean bill of health - which they argue is evidence of failed oversight by the state.

State officials not investigated

Kamil Kartal, from the group Social Rights Association of Soma, told DW that prosecutors were barred from investigating "those who bear real responsibility, as confirmed by expert reports, and who should be held responsible." Kartal added that "the ministers in authority never gave the necessary permission in order to bring those responsible in front of the judges."

That's because government ministers invoked a controversial law that states prosecutors need administrative permission to investigate state officials, effectively shielding members of the government from the criminal justice system, which international campaigners stress falls short of modern democratic standards.

Zechenmanager nach Grubenunglück in der Tükei festgenommen

Police arrested one manager of the Soma mine after the disaster

"It is deeply troubling that the government can block prosecutors' investigations into state officials for criminal wrongdoing by invoking an old law on administrative permission," Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch said. "The European Court has in the past raised concerns that this law contributes to impunity for crimes by public officials, and urged Turkey to repeal it."

Meanwhile, Turkey's political opposition complains that none of the recommendations included in a report by experts investigating Soma have been implemented and warned that future fatalities were inevitable.

'Expert reports ignored'

Suggestions included the formation of a mining ministry, updating health and safety regulations for coal mines, monitoring for methane levels and stronger penalties - including prison sentences - for employers who ignore shutdown decisions and send miners into shafts that have been ordered closed by inspectors.

"What will those who ignored the reports say to the people when the next disaster happens?" Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Özgür Özel, whose constituency includes the Soma mine and whose party has been raising safety issues in mines for at least five years, said in remarks published in Hurriyet Daily News.

"Had the suggestions of the parliamentary investigation committee's reports been taken into consideration in 2010, the Soma disaster would never have happened," he maintains.

Underlining the sensitivity of the subject, the parliament's official report headed by Ali Riza Alaboyun, a deputy from the ruling AKP, found that the disaster was the result of serious negligence and not tragic fate, as the prime minister suggested.

Political fallout predicted

Türkei Soma Grubenunglück 17.5.2014

Thousands accompanied the funerals of mine victims

That indicates that Turkey's government has realized it cannot sweep the matter aside - especially during the run up to a crucial general election. Campaigners know this.

"If this criminal case can receive massive support from society, on the eve of the election, the ruling party stands to lose a huge number of votes due to the politicization of this legal process," Kartal said. "I think the AKP could lose a huge share of the votes."

As the one-year anniversary to the Soma disaster edges closer, academic activists are organizing vigils and online commemorations on Twitter, which enjoys immense popularity in Turkey, to keep the pressure on.

The Bogazici University Soma Solidarity and Research Group is an ad hoc group of students and lecturers who have been paying regular visits to Soma to meet with families and hear their concerns.

"Our main aim was to understand what really happened. We wanted to know what the working conditions in the mine were, how people became mine workers [in the first place]," Fethiye Erbil, a member of the group who teaches foreign languages at Istanbul University, told DW.

Her group blames "the negligence of government, ministries, the company and the greedy policies of getting the most coal in the shortest time possible."

Twittersphere mobilized

The university group has mobilized a Twitter campaign: #SomayıUnutmaUnutturma (#DontForgetSoma) in advance of planned street actions across Turkey to remind people of the miners' families plight. "We wanted to become the voice of the people left behind," Erbil said.

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