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Videos show Turkey's Erdogan boasted letting builders avoid earthquake codes

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the city center destroyed by last the Feb. 6 earthquake in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, on Feb. 8.
Turkish Presidency via AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the city center destroyed by last the Feb. 6 earthquake in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, on Feb. 8.

ISTANBUL — As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggles to defend his response to last Monday's devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake, videos from a few years back have emerged showing him hailing some of the housing projects that crumbled, killing thousands of people.

Critics say contractors were allowed to skip crucial safety regulations, increasing their profits but putting residents at risk.

The videos have fueled public outrage over slow efforts to help residents in the aftermath of the massive earthquake — the world's deadliest in over a decade — that killed more than 35,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria, and left many injured and without a home, food or heating in the middle of winter.

In one video, taken during a campaign stop ahead of Turkey's March 2019 local elections, Erdogan listed some of his government's top achievements — including new housing for the city of Kahramanmaras, also known as Maras, near the epicenter of last week's quake.

"We solved the problem of 144,156 citizens of Maras with zoning amnesty," Erdogan said, using his term for the construction amnesties handed out to allow contractors to ignore the safety codes that had been put on the books specifically to make apartment blocks, houses and office buildings more resistant to earthquakes.

Engineers and architects say the lack of safety features designed to absorb the shock of earthquakes likely contributed to the soaring death toll.

A Turkish soldier walks by destroyed buildings in Hatay, on Sunday, nearly a week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country's southeast.
Yasin Akgul / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Turkish soldier walks by destroyed buildings in Hatay, on Sunday, nearly a week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country's southeast.

In another 2019 campaign stop, in southern Turkey's Hatay province, Erdogan was again eager to tout the housing his government was creating.

"We have solved the problems of 205,000 citizens of Hatay with zoning peace," he said, using another name for the amnesties being used to facilitate construction practices that could leave buildings unable to withstand earthquakes.

The videos were reported by Turkish news sites such as Duvar and Diken, and have circulated widely.

Duvar cited a senior Istanbul city official, Bugra Gokce, who gave a breakdown of the tens of thousands of building amnesty certificates granted before the 2018 general election in 10 provinces struck by the earthquake. They included more than 40,000 amnesty certificates in the hard-hit Gaziantep province, the official said.

The amnesty meant that some builders had to pay a fine but their construction projects could go forward if they didn't meet code restrictions, according to Turkish media reports.

Erdogan has acknowledged some initial problems with the country's response to the earthquake, but he has said no government could be ready for a disaster of this magnitude.

However, Turkey's main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said that "If there is one person responsible for this, it is Erdogan."

And the country's main association of engineers and architects weighed in with a scathing attack on the practice of amnesties for builders, saying, "Zoning amnesty is an invitation to death."

The association added, "In our country, zoning amnesties have been one of the most important incentives for illegal construction and have made it uncertain for the society to live in healthy and safe houses." The group said the practice is used "for the sake of political gain," and must be stopped.

Turkey's Duvar news site posted a tweet from Erdogan from 2013, marking the anniversary of the 1999 Marmara earthquake that killed more than 17,000 people. It said: "Buildings kill, not earthquakes. We need to learn to live with earthquakes and take measures accordingly."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.