Vigilante 'justice' threatens Syrians in Turkey's quake-hit cities

Turkey earthquake
8 min read
25 February, 2023

As the Turkish nation still reels from two devastating earthquakes that killed more than 45,000 people and reduced countless buildings into rubble in southern Turkey and northern Syria, the circulation of video footage of lynched looters underscores the danger of mob justice looming large in quake-stricken areas.

The scenes of lynching spread a sense of lawlessness even after the deployment of troop reinforcements to the region to reassure a weary public.

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At least four people were reportedly killed after an angry mob pulled out the passengers of a pick-up truck loaded with materials believed to be pilfered from the quake-hit city of Antakya in southern Turkey the previous weekend.

The crowd rounded up four suspected looters while the police sought to rein in the mob without much success. All of the beaten suspects were killed on the spot.

"Instead of proper interrogations at police custody followed by legal charges for stealing/plundering private property, both the law enforcement forces and vigilantes impose their own bloody mob justice on the people they 'suspect' of  stealing earthquake victims' belongings"

In another case, a suspect, who was brutally beaten by gendarmerie  – the military police – later died of his wounds at a hospital in Antakya. According to the medical autopsy report, his nose was broken and he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage.

Stripped of most basic needs during the chaos and anarchy in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that shattered normal civic life in 10 provinces, some desperate citizens broke into stores and supermarkets in a frenzied search for food.

Later, some other opportunists tapped into the security vacuum created by the botched aid response by authorities, scouring abandoned buildings for valuables such as cash and gold.

The looting became a bane both for authorities and citizens who were largely preoccupied with frantic search and rescue operations to save their beloved ones trapped under the rubble.

The emerging reign of the response of the mob obviously raises serious ethical questions. The broad support pouring from some quarters of society for the bloody violence inflicted on the looters can be seen as quite appalling.

The apologists include political actors/movements, sections of social media/journalists as well as law enforcement forces.

Map of Turkey-Syria earthquake

The problem with endorsement

To put an end to looting – but not to the mob killings – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that the government would deal with looters firmly. In line with that, the security forces have so far apprehended 300 people over charges of plunder.

But the endorsement of extrajudicial violence against suspected looters across social media is especially disconcerting. 

A journalist, who shared the video of the police beating of suspects in custody, for instance, had no qualms in applauding the brutal acts and publicly commending the police.

He is not an isolated figure. There was a groundswell of support for a violent approach against alleged looters. Countless videos went viral on Twitter and an outpouring of comments registered widespread approval, to the horror of some law-abiding citizens, alarmed critics, and baffled journalists.

When the lifeless bodies of the lynched suspects were huddled together near the truck, one of the onlookers proudly exclaimed that they got what they deserved: justice.

As more and more videos featuring beaten suspects accused of looting appear on social media, a gruesome pattern emerges: instead of proper interrogations at police custody followed by legal charges for stealing/plundering private property, both the law enforcement forces and vigilantes impose their own bloody mob justice on the people they 'suspect' of  stealing earthquake victims' belongings.

“Those who do this should be investigated. You catch the thief, you hand him over to the courthouse, you have no right to beating, otherwise, you will be called a street mafia and a gang, not a state,” Ihsan Eliacik, a renowned columnist, wrote on Twitter, fuming over the emergence of mob justice becoming commonplace in the quake-hit region.

Hate speech puts Syrians on target

What is more significant is that the addressee of lynchings is  Syrian immigrants and Turkish citizens living on the margins of society. After lynching videos, Turkish-Armenian journalist Alin Ozinian registered a sense of alarm over the toxic ultra-nationalist propaganda directed against Syrian refugees. She genuinely dreads the prospect of a pogrom against the Syrian community, whose woes have only been exacerbated by the twin quakes.

Her fears are not unwarranted nor inflated. Consistent with the prevailing anti-Syrian nationalist narrative since 2011 when Turkey opened its borders for Syrians escaping the Assad regime,  the contemporary concerted campaign by nationalist factions squarely pins down Syrians as the usual suspects behind every act of looting or vandalism. But the data discounts this stereotyping. The majority of the detained looters are Turkish citizens, not immigrants.

As fake news and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, it places immigrants under immediate threat. A famous Instagram influencer was detained by Turkish police over posting a tweet, saying that “one Afghan cut the arm of a lifeless woman lying under the rubble and stole her gold.”

It galvanized locals. Under interrogation, he conceded that he did not see the event; the information he had was based on hearsay. The story was found fake after rigorous fact-checking by authorities.

"If the earthquake represents a shattering experience for the displaced Syrians, the new threats of freezing cold, looming hunger, and the menace of vigilante justice seem equally shattering"

A self-proclaimed digital sleuth has come up with a list of doctored stories and fake news that unnecessarily put the lives of innocent people in danger in the hazy moments following the earthquake.

Because of spin doctors and conspiracy peddlers, citizen enforcers of bloody-punishment-as-justice feel emboldened to dispense street justice to suspects regardless of the accuracy of allegations. The faintest whiff of suspicion could easily become fatal for immigrant-looking people.

To counteract the poisonous discourse against Syrians, a local Turkish military commander released a video. “There is no Turkish or Syrian person capable of committing this theft or evil. Anyone who lacks human values, has no morals, no good manners, can do it,” the commander said.

There are counter-stories confirming the military leader: a citizen who lost her eight-month baby and husband in Kahramanmaras in the first quake told a touching story. “When we were in a state of shock, Syrians pulled eight people alive out of the rubble in our apartment, but they ran away after sunrise for fear that they would be conceived as looters.”

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If the earthquake represents a shattering experience for the displaced Syrians, the new threats of freezing cold, looming hunger, and the menace of vigilante justice seem equally shattering.

At the forefront of Syrian-bashing is the nationalist politician Umit Ozdag who broadcasts hate by tapping into the raw anger of the public.

Seen as Turkey’s Geert Wilders, Ozdag wasted no time in whipping up the anti-Syrian sentiment by portraying them as “thieves, looters, and invaders of empty homes.”

Echoing a Trumpian discourse, Ozdag told countless whoppers, producing one fictional story after another, building a pipeline of unfounded and woefully wrong allegations.

The litany of indictments against Ozdag, the founder of the Victory Party whose central objective is to deport Syrian refugees back to war-torn Syria, is quite overwhelming. He falsely charged a man with stealing a smartphone during a press conference televised live on TV in Antakya.

The man whom Ozdag portrayed as a Syrian thief turned out to be a Turkish aid worker. There was no pickpocketing on the spot as well. The accused man simply plucked his phone from his own pocket.

In another case, Ozdag went on to claim that Syrian immigrants were involved in a mass plunder in the Samandagi district of Hatay province near the Syrian border. The party’s local head had to issue a stinging rebuke of his own party chairman, Ozdag.

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The most dangerous lie, however, was the claim that in the Mediterranean city of Mersin, some Syrian immigrants smoked hookah and watched porn at a college dormitory.

Previously reserved for female college students but opened for those Syrians left homeless after the earthquake, the government-run dormitory suddenly became a flashpoint for inter-communal tension.

The entire city was rattled by the allegations that swirled on the internet. A mob gathered in front of the dormitory to lynch Syrians but security forces stopped them. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker from Mersin, Ali Mahir Basarir, rejected such claims as baseless after a personal visit to the dormitory.

While the government declared a mounting crackdown on looters to restore public safety, the freewheeling and self-serving citizen enforcers constitute another source of menace.

A local official affiliated with Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the junior party in the ruling alliance with President Erdogan’s AK Party, posted a boasting picture on Instagram, featuring himself with an automatic rifle that is usually reserved for the Turkish troops and police special forces. “No looting. We are standing guard!”

Abdullah Ayasun is a New York-based Turkish journalist covering international politics, Turkish diplomacy, the Middle East, and U.S. socio-political affairs. His works appeared in The Globe Post, The Huffington Post, The Diplomat, Wima, and many more outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @Abyasun