Pressure grows on Turkish government over use of earthquake taxes

Pressure grows on Turkish government over use of earthquake taxes
Rescue workers search for survivors in the debris of a collapsed building on November 1, 2020 in Izmir, after a powerful earthquake struck Turkey's western coast and parts of Greece. (AFP)
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Updated 05 November 2020

Pressure grows on Turkish government over use of earthquake taxes

Pressure grows on Turkish government over use of earthquake taxes
  • The tax was introduced after a magnitude 7.4 quake in the Marmara region in 1999 that killed 17,000 people
  • However, experts say that much of the revenue from the tax was not spent on earthquake-protection measures

JEDDAH: In the aftermath of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Izmir last Friday that killed at least 110 people, pressure is growing on the Turkish government to explain what happened to billions of dollars raised by a mandatory earthquake tax Turks have been paying for more than 20 years.
The tax was introduced after a magnitude 7.4 quake in the Marmara region in 1999 that killed 17,000 people. The money from it is supposed to be used to fund projects to reinforce buildings and prepare cities to better cope with earthquakes.
However, experts and opposition politicians say that much of the revenue from the tax was not spent on earthquake-protection measures, and there are growing calls for detailed information about how the money was used.
Turkish citizens have paid as much as 147.2 billion Turkish lira ($17.5 billion) in earthquake taxes since 1999. The country’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) accuses the government of misusing more than 71 billion lira that should have been used to protect cities from quakes.
On Thursday, prominent Turkish journalist Fatih Altayli said that since 2011 some of these taxes might have been spent on dealing with about 5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has received €6 billion ($7bn) in EU aid to help the country cope with migrants and refugees.
This allegation was also raised by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a parliamentary speech. He asked where the earthquake taxes went and added: “But when it comes to Syrians, there is a lot of money.”
Alpay Antmen, a lawyer and CHP politician, told Arab News: “This money was meant to be used for urban transformation and for making housing areas in the earthquake zones much more resilient. However, about 70 billion lira of these taxes was spent on other purposes, and this capital was transferred to the builders close to the government.”
Last year, he said he submitted a parliamentary inquiry to Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak about the use of earthquake taxes. He was referred to the Interior Ministry, which told him it had no information.
“They are collecting these taxes from taxpayers as earthquake taxes, then they merge it into the general budget,” said Antmen. “The financial resources of the government are so depleted that it uses all available tools.”
AFAD, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency, which operates under the Interior Ministry, was harshly criticized for its response to the Izmir earthquake, after it asked people to send a text message if they needed blankets.
Allegations of corruption in the use of earthquake taxes are not new. In January, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to such claims by saying: “We spent it where it was meant to be spent … we do not have the time to provide accountability for matters like this.”
The CHP is now calling the government to account and demanding full transparency about how the taxes were used.
“When you spend the money of the citizens, you have to account for it,” said Antmen. “Otherwise it is unacceptable. Tens of billions of dollars have, however, been squandered for the relief of pro-government contractors’ debt burdens.”
CHP said that had revenue from the earthquake tax been used properly, millions of buildings around the country could have been strengthened to help them survive powerful earthquakes that are expected to hit Turkey, which lies on several active fault lines, in the coming decades.


Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions

Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions
Updated 25 February 2021

Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions

Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions
  • World Bank threatens to suspend its backing for the country’s vaccination drive

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers who allegedly jumped the queue and received the first shot of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine on Tuesday are feeling pressure to defend their actions.

Eleven politicians, some of them younger than 75 years old, even had their vaccines “delivered” to Parliament.

A spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the organization in charge of monitoring the country’s vaccination plan, “was unaware that President Michel Aoun, his wife and his work team had received the vaccine on Friday, which is a violation to the terms of the national plan.”

As a result, the ethics officer of Lebanon’s vaccination committee, Dr. Talia Arawi, resigned on Wednesday.

It also prompted representatives from the World Bank, the Lebanese Health Ministry, the country’s COVID-19 vaccination committee and other commissions to meet and discuss the breach within the national vaccination plan. 

The World Bank, represented by its Beirut-based office, said it “will continue supporting Lebanon, but with respect to priority groups. If necessary, it is ready to suspend the financing for vaccines.”

Lawmakers who received the vaccine early were on the defensive Wednesday.

“How are lawmakers at fault?” Elie Ferzli, the Parliament's deputy speaker, asked. “Twenty-five lawmakers have been infected in parliament so far, along with 25 other employees. The latest infections occurred during the Procurement Law Committee’s meeting.”

Ferzli said he and other officials registered on the platform, based on the ministry’s request. Of those who registered, 27 lawmakers received approval for the vaccine, because they were 70 or older. Sixteen said they were inoculated in hospitals while the other 11 received the vaccine in Parliament.

Ferzli cited an American University of Beirut (AUB) report that said more than 50 percent of those who have received the vaccine did not register on the national platform.

He accused World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha of “playing a political role”. He said: “This reflects the lack of ethics that a World Bank representative should have. If this is how the bank is planning to deal with us in financing the vaccination plan, forget about the vaccines.”

Ferzli also attacked activists on social media who criticized the lawmakers, describing them as “ridiculous” and “electronic flies.”

Ghazi Zaiter, a politician and former minister, who was summoned for questioning by the former judge leading the probe into the Beirut port explosion, also tried to defend himself. He took to social media, claiming that “he is more Lebanese than others, which gives him the right to the vaccine before the others.”

Zaiter was heavily criticized, with some even calling on him to leave the country. Using a hashtag that was trending on Twitter, online activists said he “considers himself above the law and citizens.”

The AUB called on the ministry to clarify and apologize for the alleged breach of the vaccination plan. It also suggested more transparency when it comes to publishing criteria for those who are eligible for the vaccine, the number of inoculated people in each center, who should not be included in the priority groups and why.

The country’s vaccination campaign started 11 days ago. Yet half of the 12,000 doctors who are members of the medical association have not been vaccinated, nor have 55 percent of the nursing staff.


Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet
Updated 25 February 2021

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet
  • Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office

ISTANBUL: A Turkish lawyer has been arrested and charged with “insulting the president” over a controversial tweet that included sexist remarks directed at ruling Justice and Development Party MP Ozlem Zengin. 

Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office.  

Zengin sparked widespread anger recently with dismissive comments on alleged human rights violations and strip searches in Turkish prisons, ridiculing the claims of dozens of conservative women who said they had been subjected to intrusive searches in recent years. 

“An honorable woman, a woman with morals, wouldn’t wait a year (before complaining). This is an imaginary narrative,” Zengin said on Feb. 19. 

Amid public debate on the topic, Zengin said that women were falling pregnant on orders from various “illegal” groups seeking to trigger public anger over babies growing up in prisons.

“These people are having babies upon directives so that they can assert ‘there are pregnant women or women with babies in jails’,” she said on Feb. 21.

Yasar responded to this latest statement with a furious tweet, targeting the MP: “If the presidential cabinet is given the right of the first night, will Ozlem Zengin close her mouth?” he tweeted, sparking anger among women’s rights activists from all sides of politics. 

Fahrettin Altun, presidential communications director, immediately issued a statement urging the “independent Turkish judiciary to punish this creature named Mert Yaşar in the severest way possible.”

“What will the opposition do in the face of this dishonor? They will, most probably, hide their heads in the sand. We will follow it up,” he said. 

Yasar was arrested on charges of insulting the president according to Article 299 of the Turkish penal code — which critics say points to the disproportionate use of this clause since his tweet targeted an MP, not the president himself. 

Article 299 stipulates that the person who insults the president shall be punished by imprisonment from one to four years, and if the crime is committed publicly, the punishment will be increased by one to six years.

Between 2014 and 2019, about 128,872 investigations were carried out into alleged insults against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with prosecutors launching about 27,700 criminal cases.

A total of 9,556 defendants were sentenced by Turkish courts, while about 900 minors aged between 12 and 17 also appeared before the court on the same charge. 

“The politicization of the judiciary continues with unlawful arrest and false accusation,” rights activist Nesibe Kiris said. 

Several female politicians and right activists offered examples of their personal experiences with insults that failed to lead to criminal proceedings, sparking debate about the “politically motivated” implementation of such penal clauses. 

“All kinds of insults, threats, sexist attacks on me and all opposing women are free and even they provide a reason for a decision of non-prosecutions. But when it comes to an AKP politician, it becomes a reason for his arrest. It is a tailor-made judiciary. The people’s scales of conscience will weigh all of you when the day comes,” Canan Kaftancioglu, Istanbul head of the opposition Republican People’s Party tweeted. 

A group of lawyers issued a message in support of Yasar, saying that his arrest “is the continuation of the judicial practice that makes decisions under the pressure of social media and political power.”

The arrest was also attacked as being a warning against any vocal criticisms on social media.


Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State

Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State
Updated 25 February 2021

Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State

Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State
  • The call from Blinken was the first official contact Egypt had received from the new American administration of President Joe Biden

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry on Wednesday pledged his country’s commitment to the war on terror during a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The call from Blinken was the first official contact Egypt had received from the new American administration of President Joe Biden.

Shoukry told Blinken that Egypt was keen to build on the progress made over recent decades to develop cooperation between the two countries.

According to an official statement, their talks focused on regional and international issues of joint interest. They also discussed the latest developments in Libya and Palestine, and the need to continue working together to combat terrorism and other challenges and security threats facing the region.

Highlighting the historic partnership between the US and Egypt, the officials agreed to further develop political, economic, and cultural ties while promoting issues related to human rights.

US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that Blinken’s call to Shoukry showed the importance that America attached to its strategic partnership with Egypt, especially in the areas of security, combating terrorism, and the exchange of views on regional matters.

However, the statement said that Blinken had raised US concerns over Egypt’s potential procurement of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft.

During the call, they also discussed support for UN-led Libyan peace negotiations, the Middle East peace process, and cooperation in fighting terrorism in Sinai.


Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies
Updated 25 February 2021

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies
  • Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them

CAIRO: Qatar and Egypt have agreed to appointment envoys and reopen their embassies in the wake of the AlUla agreement to mend relations with Doha.

The resolve came after delegations from both countries held talks in Kuwait to plan the normalization of links between the nations.

“The two parties agreed to resume the work of their diplomatic missions … followed by the appointment of an Egyptian ambassador in Doha and a Qatari ambassador in Cairo,” an Egyptian diplomatic source said.

Qatar’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Ibrahim Abdul Aziz Al-Sahlawi, was expected to become Doha’s envoy in Cairo, the source added.

During the meeting in Kuwait, Egypt was said to have set out its conditions for settling relations with Qatar, which included strict demands for Doha not to interfere in Egyptian internal affairs.

The AlUla agreement, signed on Jan. 5 during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in the ancient city, saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt restore ties with Qatar, ending a dispute which started in 2017.

A statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “The two sides welcomed the measures taken by both countries after signing the AlUla agreement as a step toward building confidence between the two brotherly countries.”

The meeting discussed ways to enhance joint work and bilateral relations in areas including security, stability, and economic development.

Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them and for its efforts to heal the rift and promote Arab unity.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Cairo and Doha had exchanged two official memoranda agreeing to restore diplomatic relations and on Jan. 18 flights between Egypt and Qatar resumed after having been suspended for more than three years.


Syrian war being forgotten in UK as poll shows growing apathy

The results of a YouGov survey, released on Wednesday, showed only a little more than half (58 percent) of British people were aware the war in Syria was still going on. (Reuters/File Photo)
The results of a YouGov survey, released on Wednesday, showed only a little more than half (58 percent) of British people were aware the war in Syria was still going on. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 25 February 2021

Syrian war being forgotten in UK as poll shows growing apathy

The results of a YouGov survey, released on Wednesday, showed only a little more than half (58 percent) of British people were aware the war in Syria was still going on. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Brits have ‘turned off their minds’ to what is happening in Syria amid increasingly scarce media coverage

LONDON: The civil war in Syria is being forgotten by the British people as apathy toward the decade-long conflict grows, according to a UK-based charity.

The results of a YouGov survey, released on Wednesday, showed only a little more than half (58 percent) of those polled were aware the war was still going on. A spokesman for Syria Relief said Britons have “turned off their minds” to what is happening in the country.

The poll, which marks the upcoming 10th anniversary of the start of the conflict, found 38 percent of 1,753 people questioned in the UK were not sure of the current status of the war, while four percent believed it had ended.

Public awareness of the conflict was higher in August 2019, when a survey found that 77 percent people knew about the conflict, according to Syria Relief.

“I believe that after 10 years the UK has become fatigued about the Syrian crisis because of its protracted nature,” Charles Lawley, head of communications and advocacy at Syria Relief, told Arab News. “They are accepting that this is a place where tragedies happen on a daily basis, so they turn their minds off to it — and this is a great tragedy.

“I think it is a symptom of British society becoming less concerned about issues beyond our own borders and, to be frank, it is almost as if the suffering of Syrians is boring them.”

This year also marks 10 years since the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad targeted 10 schools and a hospital in attacks that claimed the lives of more than 20 people, more than half of them children, something that would not be tolerated in the UK, Lawley said.

“If this would have happened in Britain it would have been treated akin to our 9/11: a national tragedy that would be remembered for generations,” he said. “Yet because it happened in Syria, no one knows about it.

“We wouldn’t tolerate children being bombed as they sit in the classrooms of British schools so why on earth do we tolerate it in Syria or anywhere else in the world?”

Extensive media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit negotiations has meant that UK national news updates on the Syrian conflict have been increasingly rare in the past few years, which makes the efforts of charities to help the victims of the conflict much harder, Lawley said.

“It is so difficult for organizations like Syria Relief to get the UK or the world to care about suffering and death in Syria,” he said. “When we just allow Syria to be a place where bombs can be dropped on schools or hospitals, we devalue the lives of Syrians.

“But, tragically, our apathy to the plight of the Syrian people compounds their suffering as there is no pressure on governments to act to stop warring parties in the conflict from committing crimes against humanity.

“Ultimately, the British people need to remember that Syrians are people too. Their lives are just as valuable as any human life; the only difference between them and (us) is where they were born. They didn’t ask for this.”

While the UK has pledged billions of pounds in aid for Syria since 2012, politicians and the media in the UK need to do more to shine a light on the conflict and the suffering of ordinary Syrians, Lawley said, especially after the government’s recent announcement of cuts to the aid budget.

“The UK government is the third-biggest donor to the Syrian humanitarian aid response and should be proud about the enormous amount of good it is doing to help the people impacted by the conflict,” he said.

“However, with the recent announcement of the government about plans to cut the aid budget, this is making us at Syria Relief, and many of our colleagues in the (nongovernmental organization) community very concerned about what this could mean to the Syrian people — many of whom are some of the most vulnerable people on the globe.

“I think the government should be shouting from the rooftops about the incredible things that the UK aid budget has achieved. If it had, I think there would have been more opposition from the public about the announcement to cut the budget.

“Being a global leader in helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people should be worn as a badge of national pride, not treated like a dirty little secret.”

The war in Syria began in 2011 amid pro-democracy protests in Deraa. Tensions escalated after the Assad regime crushed dissenters who staged a “day of rage” on March 15, which ultimately led to more people flooding city streets demanding the president step down.