US intervenes to see justice done in Turkey

March 5, 2004

US secretary of state Colin Powell has intervened in the case of a student allegedly tortured to death by Turkish police more than ten years ago.

Mr Powell's intervention has put the case of Birtan Altinbas back on the agenda just as human rights groups had expressed concern that the trial of ten police officers for his killing was on the verge of collapse.

There is less than two years to go before the case falls under Turkey's statute of limitations. There have been continual delays owing to the defendants' failure to appear in court.

In 2001, an Ankara court sentenced four officers to four and a half years' imprisonment each for torture. It ordered that four other suspects be acquitted and that the files on two suspects not yet caught be set aside.

In a letter to Abdullah Gul, the Turkish deputy prime minister, Mr Powell calls on the government to intervene. Last week's US State Department country reports on human rights practices for 2003 highlights the case, suggesting it is part of a trend in which few torture cases are successfully prosecuted.

Abdullah Aksu, the minister of the interior, responded by demanding that all the defendants be found and brought to court. Turkish police authorities blamed the court for the officers' failure to appear, claiming it had not asked for assistance.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan predicted the case would be resolved.

"This can happen in many other countries as well. However, we continue to talk about this issue with colleagues and they are trying to finalise this issue."

The murder victim was a 20-year-old computer engineering student at Ankara's Hacettepe University who died in January 1991 in police custody six days after being arrested with three other students for involvement in a political protest. There were several witnesses to the torture.

Mr Powell has also called for the removal of the military presence in higher education. A member of the armed forces sits on the executive council of the higher education authority council, Yok.

The European Union has demanded the removal of military influences from Turkish higher education, and the government has pledged to bring Turkey up to EU standards by December when Brussels is due to decide on its membership bid.

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