Giuliani feels the heat after custody death

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ALREADY UNDER siege over the shooting of an unarmed black immigrant in the Bronx seven weeks ago, the New York City police department faced fresh turmoil yesterday as the trial opened of five officers accused of beating and torturing a Haitian citizen while in custody.

The political atmosphere in the city has already been electrified by of the Bronx shooting. In that incident, an immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, was shot in the hall of his apartment building. The four white officers fired 41 bullets; Diallo was struck by 19 bullets and died instantly.

Protests have been staged daily outside police headquarters in Manhattan, with the Rev Al Sharpton, the black rights advocate, leading those accusing the police department of racial harassment and human rights abuses. The crisis has engulfed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who rose to national prominence on the crime-fighting issue.

The last of the daily Diallo protests - which have led to about 1,000 arrests - was held yesterday. Mr Sharpton vowed, however, to bring his followers to the Brooklyn courthouse throughout the torture and beating trial.

Thus, there is no relief in sight for Mayor Giuliani, who has been tipped to run for a US Senate seat next year, possibly against Hillary Clinton. That aspiration may now be in doubt, however, with a new poll showing his approval rating slumping to just 40 per cent, from 60 per cent six months ago.

The Brooklyn trial centres on the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian. Prosecutors will allege that two years ago, four officers beat him inside a squad car, while later two of them sodomised him with the wooden handle of a plunger inside a Brooklyn precinct station. A fifth officer is accused of covering up for his colleagues.

The Louima case became the first symbol of a long-simmering grievance among New York's minority communities: that the Mayor's widely-touted embrace of the zero-tolerance approach to busting crime had given licence to the police department to trample on normal human rights and civil liberties. Minority leaders contend that police officers on the streets systematically target innocent young blacks and Hispanics. The most common complaint is that officers habitually subject young non-whites to a so-called "stop- and-frisk" while showering them with racist epithets. Officers need only the flimsiest of pretexts for slamming citizens against a wall or onto the pavement to search them.

The Louima trial could last until the summer. Some fear that acquittals in the case could lead to racial tensions in New York boiling over, perhaps triggering riots of the kind in Los Angeles that followed the police beating of Rodney King, a black motorist. Prosecutors contend that Mr Louima was hospitalised for two months after the assaults and treated for a damaged bladder and perforated rectum.

Among those representing Mr Louima will be Barry Scheck and Johnnie Cochran, both veterans of the OJ Simpson defence team. So far, however, the unrest in New York has been confined to political rhetoric, the daily protests and acts of civil disobedience outside police headquarters. Among those who have been arrested in the Diallo protests, and then released, have been Mr Sharpton himself, former New York mayor David Dinkins, the Rev Jesse Jackson andSusan Sarandon, the actress.

Anger over the Diallo shooting may ease slightly tomorrow, when the Bronx District Attorney is expected to confirm that all four of the officers involved will be charged with second-degree murder. The unsealing of the charges was delayed for two days to allow Diallo's parentsto travel from overseas to witness the charges being filed.

Mayor Giuliani has only in the last few days attempted to heal the rift between himself and the city's minority leaders. Many observers believe that he has moved too late, however. "Whether this will destroy him, I doubt it," remarked former mayor Ed Koch, a staunch critic of Mr Giuliani. "But it certainly has injured his reputation and his place in history."

Also in the political cauldron is Howard Safir, the New York City police commissioner. His chances of survival have not been helped by the exposure in the tabloid newspapers of a trip he took to the Oscar ceremony, at the expense of a leading cosmetics company, when the Diallo crisis was at its peak. Last Friday, Mr Safir announced reforms to the Street Crime Unit, to which the four officers in the Diallo case belonged. He plans to recruit 50 new officers to the team - all of them from ethnic minorities - and has decreed that uniforms be worn at all times during operations.