Border cops' murder trial puts spotlight on Portugal's immigration service

* Ukrainian man died in Lisbon airport detention centre

* Autopsy images showed body covered in dark bruises

* Three border officers go on trial Tuesday

* Critics say case exposes abusive culture in border agency

* Border agency’s workers union denies accusation

LISBON, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Three Portuguese police officers stand trial on Tuesday over the fatal beating of a Ukrainian man in a Lisbon airport lock-up, a case that fuelled outrage and exposed what rights advocates say is a record of abuse within the country’s immigration service.

At the heart of public interest in the murder trial is whether it will paint the death as a one-off tragedy, as some officials maintain, or the result of a systemic culture of brutality in the SEF border service, as rights groups assert.

Ihor Homeniuk, 42, was detained at Lisbon airport after his arrival on March 10, 2020. Lawyers for his widow said he came to Lisbon to look for work. Two days after he was taken into custody, he was declared dead.

Pictures taken during Homeniuk’s autopsy and later seen by Reuters showed his body covered in dark bruises, from his face to his ankles, with deep handcuff marks on his wrists.

A government inquiry found that he had been kicked, beaten, handcuffed with his hands and legs taped and then left to slowly asphyxiate on the floor of a room in a detention centre where travellers whose right to entry is in question are kept.

Last month Prime Minister Antonio Costa approved 800,000 euros ($965,680.00) in compensation for Homeniuk’s family.

Rights groups and lawyers hope the trial will bring justice for his wife and two children and lead to a wider review of the border agency’s conduct.

“I’ve had many battles with SEF,” Jose Gaspar Schwalbach, the lawyer for Homeniuk’s widow, told Reuters. “My aim is to abolish the service and change the law.”

Lawyers for the three police officers, who were charged with murder in September, declined comment before the trial begins.

Luis Silva, one of the accused, told newspaper Publico that he disputed the homicide charge, blaming Homeniuk’s death on health problems, a lack of medical care and neglect by other officers. The other accused have not spoken to the media.

The SEF staff union denied that a culture of abuse existed in the organisation, saying border officers were “here to help”.


Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita said in December that a six-month blueprint to restructure SEF would be presented to parliament in January, but that did not happen.

Cabrita defended the SEF record, saying just 51 complaints involving verbal or physical abuse were made against the service in 2020. Rights groups and lawyers say the number of unreported cases is likely much higher.

“Officers put people under enormous psychological pressure,” said migration lawyer Adriano Caeiro. “When detainees have their ‘interview’, they are already afraid.”

A number of former detainees have spoken to local media since Homeniuk’s death about having experienced intimidation and abuse – from beatings in isolated rooms to being forced to sign documents stating they entered the country to work illegally.

The government said in December it had opened an inquiry into those accounts. SEF told Reuters that it does not comment on ongoing investigations.

International humanitarian agencies have voiced alarm.

Hugh Chetwynd, a member of the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee, told Reuters that its last visit to Portugal in 2019 showed that “the problem of violence by law enforcement officials is a deeper one”.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission reported in 2020 that it was “concerned about allegations regarding excessive use of force, including torture and ill-treatment, by law enforcement officials (in Portugal)...and about the very low number of prosecutions and convictions in such cases.” ($1 = 0.8284 euros) (Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Catarina Demony, Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mark Heinrich)