In an incident last year in November, 11 children and one 18-year old staff member lost their lives after a fire broke out in a student dormitory for girls in the Aladağ district of the southern Turkish city of Adana.
The dormitory was founded and run by “Aladağ Kurs ve Okul Talebelerine Yardım Derneği” a charity association for students affiliated with the Süleymancı sect, close to the ruling AKP. Ten of the victims were students of secondary education at the nearby state school. The youngest victim was the 6-year old daughter of the dormitory principal. Right after the event, families of the victims – all of them poor villagers - blamed the Süleymancis for having caused this tragedy. They told they had no other place to send their daughters, since this was the only facility providing cheap/ free accommodation for those going to the school in the district. Criticizing any mistreatment in the dormitory was not an option for them since in their villages there was no school at all.
Last week the first trial of the case was held in Adana, not in a courthouse as it would be expected but in one of the rooms of the Adana Chamber of Commerce in Kozan, because the number of the attendants exceeded the capacity of the former. Besides relatives and lawyers of the victims, 15 bar association presidents, MPs from the opposition party CHP and journalists were present to monitor the first trial day. Accused are 7 defendants, among them also the principal of the dormitory and the head and other managers of the before-mentioned charity association who are being charged with 2 to 15 years imprisonment on the grounds of “recklessly causing the death and injury of more than one person”.
An expert report represented to the court claimed that the catastrophe could have been avoided, if the staff had been gone through proper emergency training. Directly after the fire the police found that the emergency exits of the dormitory were locked. Fire extinguishers did not exist either. And contrary to code the building was partially made out of wood and furnished with carpets, which eventually accelerated the fire. The building was licensed for 2 floors only, but a third one had been added.
However critics point to the fact that the incident cannot be reduced to code violations or the (in)capabilities of the staff only. Aladağ is one of the many examples of how the state makes public school services especially in remote areas inaccessible for poor people, while paving the way for religious groups to step in as a substitute.
Relatives of the victims, who attended the trial told reporters, that they were under pressure from members of the Süleymancis to drop their charges. The lawyer of the relatives announced that one day prior to the trial, a considerable amount of money was transferred to the families, by using their citizenship ID-numbers (a method that makes it possible in Turkey to transfer money, even if one does not have the account number of an individual). Further investigation of the evidence was made impossible as the building has meanwhile been demolished. Following the trial, families of the victims were attacked by a group of men, while they were gathering for a press release. The attackers were assumed to be Süleymancis. The trial will continue in July.