ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ Opening the way for a possibly ground-breaking prosecution, the government gave the go-ahead Thursday for the trial of 11 police officers accused of murdering a journalist in custody last month.

The trial could mark an important turning point in Turkey's efforts to meet Western demands to crack down on alleged human rights abuses, including the suppression of free speech.

Metin Goktepe, a reporter for the left-wing daily Evrensel, was found dead Jan. 9. He had been detained by police while covering the funeral of two inmates killed during the quashing of prison riots.

It is the first time the murder of a journalist has been speedily investigated and suspects arrested and charged.

The 11 defendants face 16 years in prison if convicted, the Istanbul governor's office said.

Two other low-ranking officials and 35 police officers will also be tried for using excessive violence on hundreds detained as they tried to attend the funeral. They could be sentenced to a maximum of three years in jail if convicted.

Turkish law requires government approval before police officers suspected of crimes committed on duty can be put on trial.

Nineteen journalists, including Goktepe, have been been killed in Turkey since 1992. Security forces have been blamed for some of the killings, but no one has been charged before.

``It doesn't matter if those who kill a journalist so brutally are government employees or wearing police uniforms. The hands of justice will reach them fast,'' warned Ridvan Yenisen, deputy governor of Istanbul.

Human rights groups have reported systematic torture and beatings by police. They have also claimed that many suspicious deaths in detention were to be blamed on the police.