Quake victims sue Turkish cowboy builders

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS acting for the victims of the Turkish earthquake have begun gathering evidence against developers and contractors accused of building substandard homes, in what they believe will be the largest prosecution in the country's history.

The lawyers are trying to win damages and prove criminal negligence against hundreds of contractors, who could face up to eight years in jail. The final decision on bringing charges lies with the state prosecutor, but with an estimated 50,000 people dead and 200,000 homeless, hundreds of thousands of people who lost family, friends or property are expected to make civil claims running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Last week, members of the committee of the Turkish Bar Association started sending dozens of lawyers to towns in the area struck by the earthquake to start gathering evidence - both physical and verbal - from people who wished to make claims. "This is likely to be the biggest action in our history, and it could take years to complete," Aysegul Yegen, a spokeswoman for the association, told the Independent on Sunday.

Much of the public anger has focused on contractors accused of using substandard materials which failed to stand up to the quake. There have also been widespread allegations of bad practice and corruption.

One of the contractors widely accused, Veli Gocer, went into hiding after his home and office were smashed up by buyers of houses that collapsed. From hiding, Mr Gocer rang a television chat show and admitted using cheap materials in some of his projects. "In the first estates I constructed I used sea sand [a condemned practice resulting in weaker concrete]. I think that is why the buildings collapsed. In this respect I have been negligent. I cannot say I am not responsible," he said.

But Mr Gocer is just one of many. In Yalova, hundreds of people living in tents after their homes collapsed spoke with fury of the builders. "The government has to do something about them," said one woman, as she and her neighbours listed a string of builders they believed were guilty of negligence.

As well as taking testimonies, the lawyers will be collecting samples of concrete, steel bars and other materials used in the construction. These will be taken to university laboratories for analysis. Lawyers are liaising with local authorities to preserve the evidence. Some authorities, such as those at Avcilar, a suburb of Istanbul, have collected and catalogued samples from collapsed buildings before logging them with notaries, but others are less organised. There are fears that much evidence could be destroyed, perhaps deliberately, by the dumping of rubble into the sea. "This is something we have to act quickly to prevent," said Ms Yegen.

The lawyers, who will bring sample cases, are aware of the challenge ahead of them. Many people in Turkey fear there may not be the political will to bring prosecutions, given the close relationship between some politicians and the construction industry. Even if the cases are successful, it is feared that many of the contractors will not have the insurance required to pay the victims.

The size of the inquiry underlines the scale of the problem facing Turkey. The day after foreign rescue teams left the country, having been told they were no longer required, the Turkish government made an international appeal for a range of items, from tents to bulldozers. "We need tents, showers and toilets," said Atilla Demirtas, a co-ordinator with the Turkish Red Crescent charity in Yalova. "We especially need tents - as quickly as possible."