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Anatomy of a Social Murder: The Çorlu Train Massacre


This article reads like Garcia Marquez’s 1981 Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The dead this time is not Santiago Nasar but the passengers of a train that crosses Turkey’s European part and the murderer—not the Vicario twins, but the state-led liberalization of Turkish Railways, one of the crowning achievements of the AKP government. The Çorlu train derailment is only one of the many cases in Turkey, where privatization literally kills. One can also add the Marşandız train collision later that year or the Soma mine disaster of 2014, which claimed 301 lives, and many other industrial “accidents,” whose court cases are stalled somewhere in the courts, waiting for the blame to dissipate.

The article originally appeared in Turkish on the Blog of the Human Rights School, a platform where human rights violations, in Turkey and internationally, are investigated, both theoretically and practically. The editors of the Blog and many of its authors are themselves no strangers to persecution by the Turkish state. In fact, as you may notice, the author of this article, Can Atalay, wrote it in the Silivri prison, where he recently began serving his 18-year sentence for “inciting the Gezi protests.” Prior to this, he was a human rights lawyer, activist and member of Taksim Solidarity, and founding member of the Social Rights Association. This translation was prepared by Justus Links, in consultation with both the original Turkish text and a previous translation by Virtüs Translations.

Ş. Can Atalay, Attorney at Law

Silivri Prison Ward 9, cell no. A47

On July 8, 2018 on the rail segment between Uzunköprü and Halkalı, train no. 12703 of the State Railways of the Republic of Turkey (TCDD) failed to cross a culvert where the earth underneath the railbed was missing. [A culvert is a channel for water to pass under a rail or roadway; in this case the earth between the culvert and the rail seemed to have been washed away—Trans.] Five rail carriages turned over, 25 of our people died and official statistics tell us that 340 people were wounded.

I hope you have noticed that the word “official” in the previous sentence qualifies only the number of the wounded, not the dead. The people who came to recover their dead from underneath tons of iron entered the record, but the wounded could not even be properly counted; we learned later in court that the true count was much higher than 340. When those of the wounded who did not make it into the official count learned that the trial had begun, they crowded outside the door of the courtroom. That is how we found out that this murder of 25 had been at the same time an attempted murder of an unknown number of people.

Such words as murder and attempted murder may well strike the reader as provocative—and in fact we hope that they do so. But she should keep in mind that these are not rhetorical terms thrown around for effect by a socialist appealing to emotions over and above what the demands of thought require.

No, what happened on the train on that culvert near Çorlu is, from the point of view of criminal law, quite simply murder: murder in the technical, legal sense! Ever since the foundation of our republic, responsibility for the construction and upkeep of the railroads has been the duty of the State Railways of the Republic of Turkey (TCDD). That means not only operation of rail transport or the maintenance and regular inspection of rail lines and other infrastructure, but also the production of rail carriages in factories furnished with the requisite facilities for workers’ health and recreation: traditionally, all of this belonged to the TCDD.

Seen from another standpoint, rail transport was managed in an all-encompassing manner. The design of rail carriages, the construction of lines, the upkeep of infrastructure: all of this was the coordinated work of professionals who thereby cultivated their own sense of identity and pride in their work alongside the technical structures that they built and maintained.

Railroad workers had been at the center of a comprehensive system encompassing vocational training, labor and leisure, extending from high school to retirement and including such benefits as vacationing facilities. In this environment they could absorb and advance the cumulative technical and professional experience of previous generations so as to be, not just sellers of labor-power, but professionals who laid claim to their work as a lifelong project.

Then came the coup d’état of September 12, 1980, which transformed the country into what the junta and its capitalist allies deemed “a rose garden without thorns” so as to enable the implementation of the neoliberal program laid out in the well-known January 24 decrees. Under the subsequent Turgut Özal government, the program of privatization and deregulation became unstoppable, and anyone who resisted was smeared as a dinosaur.

This privatization agenda, which began in Özal’s first years and continued through the 1990’s almost with the air of a national consensus, reached its climax under the AKP government after 2002, which cleared away the final legal obstacles so that the new system could flourish unrestrained by any rules.

From the perspective of capital, the privatization of the Turkish Railways can be considered one of the most important achievements of the AKP period. Upon coming to power the AKP almost immediately broke the TCDD’s ties to the port authorities and tore apart the institutional structure of the TCDD, including its vocational schools and hospitals—and has even contemplated relaxing zoning restrictions to enable construction on land needed for railroad maintenance.

As the legally binding Decree no. 655 of 2011 took the first step toward ending the state railroad monopoly, the General Directorate of Railroad Management would no longer uphold the public administration’s direct responsibility for building and operating railroad infrastructure; in its place would be a mere “regulatory agency”—a concept emblematic of deregulation.

The Rail Transport Liberalization Law of 2013 reduced the TCDD to the status of an “infrastructure operator” and designated a new company, TCDD Transport Inc., the “train operator.” Rail transport was thereby surrendered to market conditions, to be managed “according to the principles of competition.” The construction and use of transport lines would no longer be a public service maintained for citizens’ needs and those of public administration. In the place of this public utility there now stood a company poised to make a profit in accordance with market principles and, if need be, at the cost of citizens’ lives.   

The implementation of a management model oriented toward profit has led to a breakdown in the old coordinated system of railroad management. The railroads now must make do with fewer workers, who work without the stability and security that the old system promised—even in a profession in which stability and security are matters of life and death. With this simultaneous reduction and casualization of the workforce, its various segments can hardly maintain functional day-to-day communication. All sense of coordination is falling apart as not only the “new” TCDD, but the whole apparatus of rail transportation hurtles toward collapse.

These systemic problems, which here caused the death of 25 and officially caused the injury of 340, have not come to light only now; we have been aware of them for as long as we have had a politics of privatization. They are the reasons why a rail line in operation for 150 years saw such an “accident” on July 8, 2018. Even the expert-witness commission formed right after the crash and flown in to the site by helicopter even before all the dead had been recovered felt they could not avoid writing, in their report to the office of Chief Prosecutor of Çorlu, that the deaths and injuries were causally connected to systemic problems of the railroad and that, in conclusion, officials “of top rank” bore responsibility for the casualties.

The reader should now stop and take a deep breath. Think about it: why was everyone in such a hurry after the crash that experts were brought in by helicopter even before the dead could be removed from the site? It wasn’t the fear that evidence might get lost. No, the problem was that in such a situation contract law dictates that one get the rail line back in operation as quickly as possible so as to minimize the obligatory compensation payments incurred by the rail transport company, which needs to be able to make a profit! Such are the dictates of market law. Let’s not be misled by the fact that in such a hurry there was time to form a commission of expert-witnesses to investigate what had gone wrong. After all, two of the members of the commission had served as consultants to the construction of that line as a high-speed rail line. Yes, you’ve read that right: we are talking about an office of investigations that appoints as expert-witnesses to a fatal rail “accident” the very people who had advised the construction of that rail line in the first place!

In spite of all these shameful conditions even these advisor-experts could not avoid writing that the underlying problem was systemic and that those responsible were of the top rank.

We say that they could not avoid writing that because the expert-witness report could not name the guilty parties or their specific failings one-by-one in the concluding section, as it should have; rather, the authors met their obligation to record the necessary data, in language comprehensible only to those with some technical knowledge of the matter, on page 28.

The office of Chief Prosecutor of Çorlu put together an indictment against six low- and mid-ranking employees, one of whom was a trackwalker tasked with overseeing that stretch of rail. In this indictment the Prosecutor’s office referred to the concluding portion of the expert-witness report prepared by the railway consultants but ignored the crucial information on page 28. To those who said that a trial could not proceed without indicting top-level bureaucrats (and politicians), the prosecutor in charge of investigations, who was busy suing journalists for criticizing him, recommended that they wait for the issuance of a file separating the cases.

Based on what we learned in the courtroom—at whose door families seeking justice for their lost children, mothers, fathers, brothers and spouses were physically attacked—let us give two examples of how the abandonment of our rail lines to market conditions has turned them into a murder site. One defendant, someone with a Management degree and title “TCDD region no. 1 bridges director,” said that within the borders of the said region no. 1 there were over 300 (yes, 300) bridges and culverts in the same condition as the one where the crash occurred.

We have heard from a trackwalker (someone assigned to watch a stretch of the line to prevent collisions) that over the last twenty years TCDD personnel have been reduced without any measures taken to replace the lost labor. The stretch including that culvert has now only one such trackwalker, and only during regular work hours and not on scheduled holiday time—like the day in question. That the culvert was open was visible from hundreds of meters away but apparently hiring someone to notice it would figure negatively in the profit statistics!

From dozens of examples entered into the record in the courtroom we could explain just how Çorlu (like the Ankara high speed rail line as well) has been turned into one big murder suspect and crime scene—how unremarkable the transformation of a culvert into a murder weapon has become—and that even though everyone could see what was coming, nothing was done to prevent it. While we cannot detail all of this in one article, for now suffice it to say that, based on the report filed by the court-appointed expert-witness commission as a result of their inspection of the site, there must be a new indictment against responsible parties of the top rank, including first and foremost the TCDD region no. 1 director and—this without a doubt—the general manager of the TCDD.

It was so abundantly clear that a trial could not proceed without a new indictment targeting top-level bureaucrats (and, in our view at least, political authorities including Ministers of Transportation) that at the seventh hearing of the First Criminal Court for Heavy Penalties of Çorlu on March 16, 2021, the court decided to wait for the result of the additional (separate) investigation—no. 2011/2966, concerning “other perpetrators.” The panel of judges for this criminal court decided unanimously (and, from what we have seen, without precedent) to send to the relevant authorities the complaint we had filed against the investigating prosecutor Galip Yılmaz Özkurşun for dereliction of duty, as he had been dragging his feet for years on filing an indictment against top-level bureaucrats (and those politically responsible).

In response to our legal accusation, which the court’s panel itself took seriously, that prosecutor was indeed removed from the case, but there has been no further news of any legal case against the prosecutor who neglected his duty—and possibly even abused his office—nor of any indictment, no matter how obviously necessary, of any top-ranking public officials.

At the court hearing on May 25, 2022, the families of the dead and wounded left the courtroom in protest and marched to the office of the Chief Prosecutor of Çorlu but in response there was silence… 

In the Çorlu train massacre we see, as clearly as a scientist sees the outcome of a chemical reaction in a laboratory, how turning a public service over to market conditions turns it into a murder weapon. We say that the action of openly sending people to their deaths as they try to access a public service can only called “social murder.” It is the mainstay of the current system, which Turkey can overcome if and when it democratizes and achieves the rule of law.

Ş. CAN ATALAY is a human rights lawyer, activist and member of Taksim Solidarity, and founding member of the Social Rights Association. Arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison at the Gezi Park trials.