Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be “put on trial" for his administration’s response to the deadly earthquakes that hit Turkey in early February, killing tens of thousands of people, according to a senior figure in the country’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Ertugrul Kurkcu, honorary president of the left-wing HDP—the third biggest party in the Turkish parliament—and a veteran socialist activist, told Middle East Eye (MEE) that the government “watched the earthquake kill the people”. “I believe that in a democratic country, Erdogan should be put on trial for the deaths of tens of thousands of people," he was quoted as saying.
Kurcu added that the earthquake and the economic crisis would be the primary issues of Turkey’s upcoming May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections, saying. “You cannot just blame negligence. Turkey had the resources [to properly respond to the earthquakes] but the government and army stood still.”
While Erdogan has conceded there were some initial problems with Turkey’s response to the earthquake, he has also stated that "no other country could act as quickly as Turkey did in this earthquake".
Turkey’s official death toll for the earthquake disaster stood at around 48,500 by the end of March 13, but no missing persons estimate had been given by officials and some experts fear the actual total could be much higher.
Critics say Turkey’s government was too slow to mobilise and deploy the military, Nato's second-largest ground force, in search-and-rescue operations after the earthquakes struck.
Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has rejected claims that the army battalions were late to intervene.
Some opposition figures, however, have even speculated that the government limited the use of the military in fear of an eventual coup being mounted against the Erdogan administration. The chairman of the Turkish Red Crescent, meanwhile, placed the blame on the country's poor history of civilian and military relations.
Experts point out that the military wasn't made part of Turkey's disaster response plan as a main response team.
A senior Turkish official told MEE that, while the armed forces were not part of the response plan, the country's disaster management agency used military infrastructure in the earthquake response, namely vehicles and equipment such as helicopters and other resources.
"The military actively used its air force to deliver aid and dispatched ships to provide medical assistance," the official said.
An MEE investigation found that the military response varied in different areas in the earthquake zone, while there were also technical problems beyond the claims of conflict between the interior and defence ministers slowing the response.
The military, it concluded, did experience difficulties getting to earthquake victims, but not because of a lack of orders—the key reasons were a lack of coordination and insufficient manpower and tools.
A soldier on duty in Malatya, about 230 kilometres northeast of Gaziantep, which was among the vicinities severely hit by the quakes in southern Turkey, told MEE senior officers dispatched his unit to collapsed buildings in the immediate vicinity of their garrison. "We didn't have the tools for search and rescue," he said. "We took many citizens out of the rubble by digging with our bare hands. Some died, some survived."
A senior military source told the publication that the criticism against the Turkish military was unfair because the Second Army was focusing on its operations in northern Syria and was keeping the bulk of its troops there.