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Turkey: Human Rights On Trial

By David Swanson

Istanbul, 16 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's human rights record is again in the spotlight this week, as the trial of eleven policemen accused in the beating death of journalist Metin Goktepe continues in the central Anatolian city of Ayfon.

The trial, set to continue March 19, has become symbolic of Turkey's continuing poor human rights record.

The trial opened last week -- coincidentally on the same day as a European Union (EU)-sponsored conference in London to discuss membership enlargement. Only last December, Turkey's hopes for EU membership were dashed, when her application for membership was rejected citing poor economic, democratic and human rights records.

Metin Goktepe, who worked for the daily Evrensel, was beaten to death January 8, 1996, while covering the funeral of three prisoners beaten to death in riots at Istanbul's Umraniye prison. After fighting broke out between mourners and police, about 1200 people were arrested and detained in a nearby stadium. It was there that the body of the 27-year-old journalist was found the next day. An autopsy revealed he had died from internal bleeding caused by severe blows to the head and body.

While officials initially denied responsibility for his death, asserting that he had fallen off a wall, witnesses testified that they had seen him beaten by the police. As public and media outrage mounted, 17 police officers were suspended. Of those, eleven are currently being tried.

Human rights groups are closely following this case as a test of Turkey's pledge to improve freedom of the press and human rights. According to Ercan Kanar, chairman of Turkey's Human Rights Association in Istanbul, "the case of Metin Goktepe is very important, and is very much symbolic of Turkey's overall human rights situation. Metin Goktepe, however, is not the first journalist to be killed in Turkey." Kanar added, "I would like to say that the situation is improving, but it isn't."

Fadime Goktepe, the mother of the dead journalist, has become somewhat of a hero in her crusade for justice. In an interview with RFE/RL at her home in Istanbul, this widowed mother of eight was indignant. "Metin was killed because he was a journalist and was reporting the truth. How can these people live with what they have done? These people are animals." Asked whether she is afraid of the police, given her harsh comments, Mrs. Goktepe retorted, "I'm not afraid of the police. They have taken everything from me. The police should be afraid of me!"

Seydi Battal Kose, the ranking police officer on duty at the time of the journalist's death, submitted a statement that he had notified the Security Directorate -- which coordinates police and gendarme operations -- of Metin Goktepe's death, but that they had tried to cover it up. In his statement, he said that the journalist had been brought before him in an "uncomfortable" state, and had advised the arresting officers to "take him out for a breath of fresh air." That was the last time the officer reports he saw Goktepe alive.

The case, and its 15 hearings thus far, has received unusually high public interest, with people coming from all points of Turkey to attend. As supporters held signs reading "Independent Judiciary, Democratic Turkey", lawyers, journalists and members of Metin Goktepe's family showed their ID cards and passed through police barricades, while special team police positioned themselves on the roofs of buildings near the courthouse. Speaking to journalists, Mrs. Goktepe stated defiantly that "my son was openly murdered, and the state, the politicians and the lawyers are still protecting his killers."

Observers say the trail of Metin Goktepe will likely become one of Turkey's most important human rights cases, which could dramatically change police conduct. The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres last year said, "if the press does its duty in this case, the fate of other trials may change."