A trial into whether the owners of Isias Hotel in Adıyaman are culpable after it collapsed killing 72 people — including a group of schoolchildren from North Cyprus — following a massive earthquake in southeast Turkiye last February, has got underway.
TRNC Prime Minister Ünal Üstel is among a delegation of some one hundred Turkish Cypriots who travelled to Adıyaman to show their solidarity with the relatives of the 35 Isias Hotel victims from Famagusta/Gazimağusa.
Speaking outside the courthouse in Adıyaman, PM Üstel told the press: “This court case is very important to us. The Isias Hotel case is one of the earthquake-related lawsuits…The outcome is important both for Turkiye, as it will serve as a precedent for other cases, and for the TRNC.
Repeating the slogan adopted across the TRNC to show solidarity with the bereaved families the “Isias cause is also our cause”, the Turkish Cypriot leader affirmed their confidence in Turkiye’s judicial process:
“We trust in the supreme Turkish justice of the Republic of Türkiye. The penalties that criminals will receive during the trial process within the framework of the law will set a precedent in other cases. That’s why it’s important. That’s why our pain is great and we share it. We will stay in Adıyaman until the case is concluded. I have full faith that justice will be served.”
Large delegation in Adıyaman
Among the senior politicians who travelled to Adıyaman with the TRNC Prime Minister were the Deputy Prime Minister Fikri Ataoğlu, Education Minister Nazım Çavuşoğlu, main Opposition Leader Tufan Erhürman, and several MPs including Talip Atalay and Oğuzhan Hasipoğlu, who heads up the TRNC Parliament’s Legal Committee.
North Nicosia/Lefkoşa High Criminal Court President Fadıl Aksun and President of the TRNC Bar Association Hasan Esendağlı were also present, along with several other Turkish Cypriot lawyers who were representing the victims’ families. A large number of journalists from the TRNC and other activists also made up the 100-strong delegation.
The families and politicians visited the site of the destroyed Isias Hotel on the main Adıyaman Atatürk Bulvarı. Nothing remains of the hotel. Most of the rubble from the collapsed building has been cleared away, leaving small fragments of cement, sand and stone.
One of the bereaved, Ruşen Karakaya (pictured top, next to the PM Ünal Üstel), who lost her 14-year-old daughter Selin in the Isias Hotel tragedy, was among those to talk to the press ahead of the trial on Wednesday morning.
Mrs Karakaya, who is head of the Şampiyon Melekler Derneği [Champion Angels Association], set up in remembrance of the tragic school party and seek justice for them, said they wanted to set a precedent for the “thousands of innocents” killed in the earthquake due to the shoddy construction of buildings. She demanded all responsible for creating Isias Hotel be prosecuted for murder.
“It is not the earthquakes that took the lives of thousands of innocents, but those who built these mass graves, those who supported them and who turned a blind eye”
“Earthquakes are a reality in this country. It’s inevitable that earthquakes will occur along active fault lines. History has witnessed earthquakes in this geography for centuries, but it is not the earthquakes that took the lives of thousands of innocents and killed us alive, but those who built these mass graves, those who supported them and who turned a blind eye.”
“Every individual who created the Isias Hotel is guilty. All earthquake defendants should be tried for murder,” Mrs Karakaya added.
School party of 35 from Gazimağusa killed in earthquake
Last February, a group of schoolchildren from Gazimağusa Turkish Education College [Gazimağusa Türk Maarif Koleji] travelled to Adıyaman, southeast Turkiye, for a volleyball tournament. They played and won their first match on the Sunday, 5 February.
The 39-strong party, which included both boys and girls teams, their sports teachers, and a few parents and siblings, returned to Isias Hotel, where they were staying. Their rooms were split across the second and fourth floors of the hotel.
When a powerful earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck neighbouring Kahramanmaraş Province in the early hours of 6 February, it caused the 10-storey hotel building to collapse “like a pack of cards” according to those present. All of the school party were trapped under the rubble, along with the other occupants in the hotel.
Relatives travelled to Adıyaman in a desperate bid to rescue their children, while the TRNC authorities sent rescue equipment and crews to help the search and rescue mission. Only four people from the party were pulled out alive.
In total, 72 people at Isias Hotel, including 35 from the Gazimağusa school party and 30 people from a group of Turkish tour guides, died.
Evidence suggested Isias Hotel had been poorly constructed, with its design badly flawed and the construction materials used of inferior quality, unable to withstand a powerful tremor as required by Turkish law.
Although similar scenes have been played out across the region, the nature of the deaths involving so many children and the huge outcry from the TRNC prompted the Turkish authorities to act very quickly and apprehend those deemed responsible for the tragedy.
Multiple people, including the owner Ahmet Bozkurt and his family members, were arrested 10 days after the earthquake and charged with a variety of offenses in relation to the collapsed building.
A total of 11 people are standing trial. The prosecution is seeking prison sentences for them between 2 years and 8 months and 22 years and 6 months for a variety of charges, including “causing the death and injury of more than one person by deliberate negligence”.
On Wednesday morning, their trial commenced at the Adıyaman 3rd High Criminal Court. The day was devoted to statements from the defendants, with the testimony of Ahmet Bozkurt infuriating the families and other Turkish Cypriot observers who were present.
Mr Bozkurt denied all the charges against him, claiming the accusations were “slanders” and “untrue”. He claimed under oath that the building, which was first erected in 2003 and later converted into a hotel, was in line with planning procedures.
When challenged by a lawyer why he had not shown remorse for the deaths in his hotel, Mr Bozkurt replied: “I am not guilty. A guilty person shows his remorse. 52 thousand lives have been lost, the guests in my hotel have gone. I am just very sad and devastated.”
“If I were guilty, I would go and end my life where the rubble [of the Isias Hotel site] is,” he added.
The trial continues.