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UPDATE 1-Portugal border cops plead not guilty in killing of detained traveller

* Ukrainian man died in Lisbon airport detention centre

* Autopsy images showed body covered in dark bruises

* Border officers plead not guilty of homicide charges

* Critics say case exposes abusive culture in border agency

* Border agency’s workers union denies accusation (Adds summary, quotes from first day of trial)

LISBON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Three Portuguese police officers accused of killing a detained Ukrainian man in a Lisbon airport lock-up pleaded not guilty as their murder trial began on Tuesday, a case rights advocates say has exposed a record of abuse within the immigration service.

Lawyers representing the accused argued the media had made scapegoats out of their clients, and that others working in the detention centre that night should also face charges.

“There are many tales of abuse which happen in this ‘no-man’s land’,” Ricardo Sa Fernandes, representing accused officer Bruno Sousa, said in his opening statement. “Homeniuk died because of the deplorable conditions in that centre.”

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 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 for travellers whose right to entry is in question.

The officers, who presented a joint defence, said they were called to the detention centre to help deal with a man whose behaviour had been described to them as violent and erratic.

They said they found him with his arms and legs taped together - a restraining technique all three condemned - and replaced the tape with a fabric tie and metal handcuffs on his arms. Two officers said they saw a few bruises on his body.

Asked whether they had physically hit Homeniuk, all three said no. “There was no need to beat him,” defendant Sousa said. “He was already in a fragile state.”

The trial is expected to last around two months.

At the heart of public interest in the proceedings is whether they 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.

“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.”

‘PRESSURE’

Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita said in December that a six-month blueprint to restructure SEF would be presented to parliament in January, but this has yet to be done.

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 it does not comment on ongoing inquiries. The SEF staff union denied that a culture of abuse existed in the organisation, saying border officers were “here to help”. (Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Catarina Demony, Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mark Heinrich)

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