Earthquake focus falls on Turkey’s building amnesty

STORY: At the Trend Garden apartment building in Malatya, as elsewhere in southeastern Turkey and in northern Syria, rescuers and families searched for survivors in the days following the powerful February 6 earthquake.

Among them was Feyza Yilmaz, hoping to find her sister and sister's children, who moved to Malatya to be nearer to medical treatment.

“We looked at so many houses. We wanted to find a good place because the children are small. We wanted it to be a good home for them. We wanted it to be comfortable because they’re far away from their own city. Looking from the outside, this was a very beautiful apartment.”

Trend Garden had been extensively remodelled a few years earlier... without the necessary permits.

But according to documents seen by Reuters, and interviews with six people, the building was later registered.

That was thanks to a 2018 zoning amnesty promulgated by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan... including at an election rally in Malatya.

The government has said over 3 million households and companies got deeds through the amnesty, a move that generated billions of dollars in taxes and fees.

But when the earthquake struck, Trend Garden disintegrated, killing 29 people.

Now, it's the subject of a criminal investigation to determine responsibility for its collapse.

Authorities in Malatya and across Turkey have arrested scores of people including property developers - and at least three people connected to Trend Garden.

As the extent of the destruction sinks in, people are asking why so many buildings collapsed.

Reuters put residents’ accusations about the amnesty and safety assessments to the mayor of Malatya, Selahattin Gürkan.

“Instead of getting stuck on the past, and what happened at a specific location We need to plan for the future so the lessons we’ve learnt this time around will make the future better, this is what I’m thinking. If there is a mistake or a deficiency the state, state institutions, and state audit mechanisms will take action.”

Our interview finished abruptly, but the mayor added one more thing as he left.

“Lastly, I would like to say that the property amnesty wasn’t the correct approach.”

The Turkish presidency and the government didn’t respond to Reuters' requests for comment.

Erdogan has said building standards in Turkey have improved under his watch.

At the Trend Garden, the bodies of Yilmaz's sister and the children were finally brought out after seven days under the rubble.

“The building was rotten. It didn’t have a licence, but later on it got one, they benefited from the zoning amnesty. I don't know how they got the license in this process, but somehow they got one.”

“I am saying this in case maybe someone, somewhere will be moved by it."