A fire which broke out after a fight among prisoners in a Şanlıurfa prison late on Saturday claimed the lives of 13 inmates, leading Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin to promise a thorough investigation into the incident on Sunday.
“If there was any abuse of duty or negligence [on the part of the authorities], they will be meticulously investigated. If there was any negligence, there will never be a cover up,” Ergin told reporters at a news conference accompanied by Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik in Şanlıurfa.
The minister said an investigation had already been launched into the fire and its results would be made public. The ministers appeared before the press after they inspected the Şanlıurfa E-type prison, the site of the deadly fire, which broke out after prisoners set their bedding on fire following a fight. The ward was housing 18 inmates. The remaining five prisoners were injured in the fire.
Ergin said the prisoners also barricaded the entrance to the ward using beds and other furnishings, hampering rescue efforts by guards. The five survivors escaped serious injury after shutting themselves in the bathroom on the ward, he said.
The victims of the fire were identified as Fuat Yıldız, Sinan Özalp, Sufi Özalp, Yunus Eşkili, Mehmet Emin Gerçek, Hüseyin Kızlac, Mehmet Satış, Şükrü Gülden, İbrahim Halil Kaya, M. Kemal Kılıç, Timur Şimşek, İmam Bakır Tek and Mehmet Emin Arslantaş.
Inmates in Turkey have in the past set bedding alight in riots to protest about poor prison conditions, but authorities insisted the incident was not a mutiny. There was no explanation, however, as to what sparked the dispute.
The fire, meanwhile, exposed the problem of overcrowding in some Turkish prisons. The Şanlıurfa prison has a capacity of 600, but was holding some 1,000 prisoners, according to news reports. Ergin said the section where the fire broke out was designed to hold 12 inmates but was temporarily accommodating 18 convicts and jailed suspects still on trial.
“We have a capacity problem in Turkey’s prisons,” Ergin admitted, adding that the government is building 196 more prisons over the next few years to overcome shortfalls.
Authorities did not say whether the victims were burned or died of asphyxiation.
Three guards suffered burns trying to put out the blaze, while the prison director and eight other guards were treated for smoke inhalation, Ergin said.
The minister also said other inmates in the prison were in good health and they were allowed to talk to their families on the phone.
Speaking to reporters before his departure to Mexico to attend a G-20 summit on Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would order an investigation into possible overcrowding in the prison.
Saturday’s fire broke out in a section housing ordinary criminals and not terror suspects. İbrahim Ayhan, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) jailed for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was not affected by the fire, the region’s governor, Celalettin Güvenç told reporters.
He previously said that authorities had launched an investigation into the incident, including into possible delays by authorities or firefighters in responding to the fire.
“Why weren’t [the firefighters] there on time? What caused the fighting? Why were these people killed? All of these will be investigated,” Güvenç said.
Meanwhile, police used pepper gas to disperse families and protesters who attempted to make their way through a roadblock to reach the prison on Sunday. Families of the inmates in the prison began registering their names later in the day to benefit from a 15-day free visitation right granted by the Justice Ministry.
The bodies of the victims were sent to Gaziantep on Sunday for an autopsy.
Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu visited the prison on Sunday along with some party officials.
The BDP released a message of condolence on Sunday for the victims of the fire and said the prison fire in Şanlıurfa has once again highlighted the problems concerning prisons in Turkey.
The party called for the immediate addressing of these problems in prisons.
Last September, five convicts were also killed in a fire when they were being transferred to an İstanbul prison from the eastern province of Van. The convicts burned to death when the prisoner transport vehicle carrying them caught fire due to a technical failure.
The tragic incident took place in the central Anatolian province of Kayseri and brought the problems of prisoners and prisons to Turkey’s agenda.