Executive jailed over Soma mine disaster released, pending appeal

A Turkish court on Thursday ordered the release of a chief executive of Soma Coal Company who was jailed over the 2014 mine disaster that took the lives of 301 miners.

A fire broke out in the galleries of the Eynez coal mine in May 2014, leading to the biggest mine disaster of the 21st Century with 301 fatalities. The event prompted harsh criticism over working conditions in mines, also causing a backlash against the then Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s administration for lack of due oversight.

Can Gurkan, the released chief executive of the coal company, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of reckless homicide, ruling to continue his detention in the appeal process.

However, the court upheld his lawyers’ appeal on Thursday and released Gurkan with a travel ban, also lifting the ruling which barred him from working in mines for 3 years.

2014 Soma mine disaster

On May 13, 2014, a fire swept through the mine located in the Soma district of the Aegean city of Manisa. Due to a shift change, 787 miners were inside during the incident, of which 486 were rescued.

Government’s response to the incident caused public frustration, with Erdogan’s remarks claiming the accidents were an innate part of this business, citing mine disasters from 19th century Britain.

Police charged at the protesters chanting, “Remember your dead!” with water
cannons, and one of Erdogan’s aides, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking a
protester while he was held down by police.

Erdogan also became a target of protests when he arrived in Soma after the incident, with crowds chanting, “Resign!” upon his arrival. Blurry footage that went viral on social media displayed him engaging with one of the protesters. According to the allegations of his critics, he was punching a man for chanting ‘resign’ while yelling at him, “Why are you running? You Israeli scum!”

The government denied the allegations and the man who Erdogan engaged with later appeared on television to say that Erdogan “showed affection to him,” saying that he was hurt by his guards later on.

“If you boo the prime minister of this country, you get the smack,” Erdogan told one of the protesters. He was also seen saying, in a threatening and provocative manner, “Come on! Boo near me once!”

The question of whether the executives of the company would be brought to justice loomed large for a while, with critics asserting that the owners came from a secular background, therefore receiving Erdogan’s protection seemed unlikely.

In the end, the prosecution indicted over 51 people on charges of negligence, five of who received jail terms of over 22 years.

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