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Man's death brings torture back into Turkey's spotlight

"It is the mentality that has to change," the country's justice minister says.

ISTANBUL // By taking the unprecedented step of apologising for the death of a man in police custody and pledging to punish those responsible, Turkey's justice minister has opened a new debate about a crucial question in this country's struggle to improve its human rights' record to become a member of the European Union: can torture be eradicated in Turkey?

"In the name of my state and my government, I apologise to the relatives," Mehmet Ali Sahin, the minister, said in a statement released on Tuesday. "I deeply regret that such an event has taken place in today's Turkey." Cases of torture and maltreatment of detainees in Turkey have decreased since the days of the last military coup in 1980 and the height of the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s, but still form one of the main problems for the country's EU bid. The government has declared a "zero tolerance policy" to combat torture and has raised prison sentences for policemen and guards who torture inmates, but human rights activists have said convictions are still rare.

Mr Sahin was speaking after the death of Engin Ceber, a 29-year-old man from Istanbul, who was arrested by police on Sept 28 in the city as he was handing out copies of the leftist magazine Yuruyus, or The March, and protesting against police action against another Yuruyus activist, who was shot by officers a year ago and is now paralysed from the waist down. According to statements by human rights activists, Mr Ceber and several friends were beaten by policemen after their arrest. When a judge ordered the men to be remanded in custody for resisting the police, the beatings went on in Istanbul's Metris prison, said Mr Ceber's lawyer and the human rights organisation Amnesty International. Mr Ceber was repeatedly beaten on the head and back with iron bars, one of his friends, Ozgur Karakaya, told investigators, according to press reports. Last week, Mr Ceber was transferred to a hospital with a severe brain haemorrhage. He died on Oct 10. His friends were released from custody after his death.

Following the death of Mr Ceber, Mr Sahin sent special investigators to Istanbul to look at pictures from closed-circuit television in Metris prison and talk to prison guards as well as to detainees. After initial findings showed that Mr Ceber had become the victim of maltreatment, 19 police and prison officers were suspended from duty. Among them is a prison doctor who wrote a report giving Mr Ceber a clean bill of health without even seeing the detainee, Mr Sahin said. Besides offering his public apology, the minister also called Mr Ceber's father.

In their statements to investigators, the suspended policemen rejected all accusations of torture and said they had used "adequate force" against the detainees, who were resisting arrest, newspapers reported yesterday. The policemen said they did not know how Mr Ceber died. "You can change the laws as much as you want, it is the mentality that has to change," the minister said on Wednesday. Mr Sahin acknowledged that Turkey had failed to completely stamp out torture despite new laws. "It takes time for our personnel to adjust to the new situation," he said. More training was needed for policemen and prison guards. "You cannot say there is no torture just by declaring zero tolerance against torture." The minister also reminded reporters that the maximum sentence for torture was life in prison.

Mr Sahin's apology to Mr Ceber's family was broadly welcomed as a sign of change in a country where the state has a long tradition of denying or downplaying cases of torture. "Historic announcement by minister Sahin," the daily newspaper Yeni Safak said on its front page. "Minds are changing," said Hurriyet. Mr Ceber's lawyer also praised Mr Sahin's statement, but said he doubted that Ankara was really willing to get to the bottom of the case. "There has never been something like this in a country like Turkey, where torture is an everyday event," Taylan Tanay, the lawyer, said about the minister's apology. "But the 19 people who have only been suspended have to be arrested and charged if there is to be any hope."

Mr Tanay also said a court in Istanbul that is investigating Mr Ceber's death had declared the procedure secret, making it impossible for him as the lawyer of the victim to ask for files from the investigation. "I don't think we are at the start of a better period," Mr Tanay said. "They can torture as they please." Human rights activists point to cases like that of Mustafa Kukce, a 23-year-old who was arrested in June last year under the suspicion of having stolen a tyre and who died after three days in police custody and in prison, allegedly suffering beatings by police. Sixteen months later, the trial against the policemen suspected of being involved in Mr Kukce's death has not even begun.

According to the Human Rights Foundation, a group that tracks suspected human rights violations in Turkey, 29 people have died in police custody or in prisons since the start of the year. A total of 320 people reported having been tortured last year, up from 252 a year before. These developments are part of a more general negative trend in the country's human rights situation, Yavuz Onen, the foundation's president said in a statement. "The positive atmosphere that had been created by relative improvements between 2000 and 2005 has been reversed after 2005."

@Email:tseibert@thenational.ae