ISTANBUL // Lawyers and human-rights activists yesterday welcomed the historic convictions of a prison director and two prison guards for their involvement in the torture of a jailed political activist who later died from the beatings he suffered at their hands.
Turkey has a long history of torture in its jails and detention centres. While instances of systematic abuse of prisoners and detainees have declined in recent years, there were 473 reported cases of torture and "ill-treatment" in Turkey last year, up from 343 a year before, according to the non-governmental Turkish Human Rights Foundation.
Yet the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says it is determined to stamp out the practice - a bid that received a boost late on Monday. For the first time in Turkish history a local Istanbul court, ruling in a re-trial ordered by the Supreme Court of Appeals, handed down a second guilty verdict against three prison employees for causing the death through torture of Engin Ceber in 2008. Ceber, a left-wing activist, later died from head injuries sustained during the beatings.
Thirteen other state employees were also convicted on charges of covering up the circumstances of Ceber's death or falsifying documents.
The verdicts "will have a great effect", Taylan Tanay, a lawyer for the Ceber family, said yesterday. He said the decision against the men - the ex-prison director, Fuat Karaosmanoglu, and the two guards, Sami Ergazi and Selahattin Apaydin - sent a message that a long-standing culture of impunity was crumbling and government officials were no longer guaranteed they will be shielded from prosecution.
"It is of upmost importance that a prison director has been held responsible for the death of an inmate," Mr Tanay said. "It will help to combat torture."
Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, said it was crucial that the court convicted not only prison guards but a superior. "For the first time in Turkish legal history they are giving life sentences" for torture, he said yesterday.
Monday's verdict capped a long legal struggle for friends, family and supporters of Ceber, who was arrested in Istanbul on September 28, 2008, while demonstrating against the death of another activist a year earlier. Ceber was taken to a police station and later to Istanbul's Metris Prison.
According to witnesses and pictures from prison surveillance cameras, Ceber was beaten by the police and prison guards, and died on October 10, 2008. Turkey's then-justice minister, Mehmet Ali Sahin, stunned the country's political establishment when he apologised to Ceber's family for the torture carried out against him.
The legal battle to gain accountability for those responsible for Ceber's death has been more hard-fought and circuitous, however.
In June 2010, 19 defendants were found guilty of complicity in the torture of Ceber, and the prison director and two guards were sentenced to life in prison in the first such decision in Turkish legal history.
Late last year, however, Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdicts on procedural grounds and ordered a retrial.
Despite Monday's ruling, legal proceedings may not be over. Mr Tanay, the Ceber family lawyer, said the court decision to reduce the sentence of one defendant from life in prison to two-and-a-half years and free him for time served might be appealed. The defendants might also appeal their convictions again, he added. Mr Tanay said he was concerned about what he described as efforts by some judicial officials to ensure that prison employees do not do jail time.
"For now, the operation to save the defendants has failed," he said. "But the court of appeals could overturn the verdict again." He said he expected that decision in about a year. The three main defendants remain in custody.
Turkey has embraced a "zero tolerance" policy against torture. That was reaffirmed by Mr Erdogan during a convention of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara on Sunday. "No one in this country can commit torture in the name of the state anymore," he said.
Mr Gardner, of Amnesty International, said that more had to be done to end leniency for state officials accused of torture.
The first verdict in the Ceber case was a milestone, sending "shock waves through the system", he said. The actions of the appeals court weakened it, however. "That is why the new judgment is very important in re-creating that precedent and deterrence. But one verdict alone will not be enough."