Many bar owners have blamed higher taxes on alcoholic beverages by a government with Islamist roots for the emergence of illegal liquor factories.
Police have so far raided at least three illegal factories in Istanbul and its environs where a bootleg version of raki, Turkey‘s potent national drink, was produced, and seized several thousand bottles of the illegal liquor across the country.
Ten people detained in the operation have appeared in court and five of them have been placed under formal arrest on charges of “endangering a person’s health”.
The alarm was first raised on Sunday when four people died after a meal at a restaurant in a working-class district of the country’s biggest city Istanbul.
Taxes are high on legally-made
Since then five more people have died after consuming bootleg raki, which health officials say contains up to 200 times more than the allowed amount of methyl alcohol, which causes death when drunk in large amounts.
Police were also investigating a number of other deaths which they suspect might have been caused by the bootleg raki.
A total of 44 people have been hospitalised so far with complaints of vomiting, dizziness, headache and loss of eyesight. Eleven of them were reported to be in critical condition.
Industry officials say the deaths were just a disaster waiting to happen since the government, eager to keep up with tight fiscal targets set in an IMF-backed austerity programme, increased taxes on alcoholic beverages.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was born on the ashes of a banned Islamist movement, has increased taxes on alcoholic beverages four times since coming to power in November 2002, with the last hike amounting to 26%.
“Two glasses of raki and you are dead. This is massacre, it is murder”
“Bootlegging has become very lucrative with the tax hikes in the last two years. We have always said that liquor production would go underground with such taxes,” he added.
The deaths have triggered unrest across the country, where raki goes by the name of “Lion’s Milk” for endowing courage and potency on its drinkers and is consumed in huge amounts.
“Two glasses of raki and you are dead. This is massacre, it is murder,” said Camal Taslicukur, the owner of Etap cafe, a tavern in Istanbul‘s nightlife district of Beyoglu.
He complained of a drop in the number of customers since the deaths.