In Latin America, Torturers Lurk Behind Uniforms

CARACAS, Jun 25, 2010 (IPS) - "My daughter was brutally tortured, intimate parts of her body were beaten, her head was put in gas-filled bags and electric shocks were applied all over her body," Vidalina Vera, the mother of Wilmary Brizuela, told the Venezuelan Attorney General's Office.


Brizuela, a professor at the Bolivarian University in the southeastern Venezuelan city of Ciudad Bolívar, was arrested on Jun. 18 and is being held at La Pica prison, some 600 kilometres east of Caracas.

According to Vera's statements to the press, the judicial police raided her home and arrested and threatened her and other members of her family, while another group of them seized her daughter at the university.

The police are investigating relatives of Wilmary's brother, Wilmer Brizuela, who is serving time in a prison in southeast Venezuela for kidnapping. He is known as a leader among the inmates and has links with criminal gangs, and the authorities suspect him of masterminding the murder of Professor María Gabriela Casado, the sister of Judge Mariela Casado.

Judge Casado took part in the appeal court trial that upheld Wilmer Brizuela's 10-year sentence.

Cases like Vera's complaint "follow a pattern of torture and human rights violations that has persisted for decades in Venezuela, and those responsible can be found in many police forces and several military corps," Alfredo Ruiz, of the non-governmental Justice and Peace Support Network, told IPS.

"It could have happened in other Latin American countries, too, because unfortunately the practice is widespread in this region," said Ruiz, who is also a representative of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Health Institutions against Torture, Impunity and other Human Rights Violations (RedSalud DDHH).

In another incident, police in the western state of Lara, enraged by the injuries received by a colleague on Apr. 27, burst into the Paedagogical University in Barquisimeto, the regional capital, fired shots in the air and attacked a group of students.

Nine women and men were punched, kicked, pistol-whipped and beaten with police motorbike helmets. The students were arrested and taken to the police station, where they were again assaulted and made to perform physical jerks for 40 minutes, according to their allegations.

"This is one of the complaints we have documented, and we have asked the Attorney General's Office for protection for the victims," psychologist Fiorella Perrone, another member of RedSalud DDHH, told IPS. "In addition to the physical harm they suffered, they face social and psychological harm, and are living in fear and under the pressure of threats to their lives and to those of their families."

RedSalud DDHH has documented and helped with 473 cases of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment all over the country, but especially in Caracas, since it started its work in 1995.

Of that total, 212 cases were reported between January 2003 and June this year, with three military corps, three national police forces, nine regional police forces and 12 municipal police forces being accused of abuses, as well as some instances of joint military and police operations.

"In 97 percent of the cases, the victims were from low-income sectors, and 79 percent were male and aged between 18 and 38. Most victims are young, poor, dark-skinned men," Perrone said.

Beatings were suffered in 85 percent of the cases; verbal aggression in 43 percent; death threats in 40 percent; the victim's head was covered with a bag in 15 percent of cases; 10 percent were given electric shocks; and four percent were illegally transferred to an unknown location.

There appears to be a widespread pattern of this sort of mistreatment in Latin America, according to reports from the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an Organisation of American States body, and from international rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights has denounced abuses committed against detainees, even against local police agents captured by the army in anti-drugs operations.

The abuses reported include suffocation with plastic bags placed over the head, electric shocks to the genitals, punches, kicks, bites, threats and simulated executions.

Yet Mexico, said Ruiz, is also an example of good practice, in that emergency room doctors and prosecutors are required to be familiar with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, otherwise known as the Istanbul Protocol, which was adopted in 1999 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In Colombia, meanwhile, Amnesty International has documented over 80 cases of torture a year, in the context of the civil war between state security forces, far-right paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas.

The Colombian Coalition Against Torture documented 899 cases between 2003 and 2008. Among these, 502 of the victims were murdered after being tortured.

According to human rights organisations, torture and abuse of detainees are common practice on the part of the police and other government bodies in Colombia. Amnesty has expressed concern over the actions of death squads made up of police or military personnel, who abduct, torture and execute people, including children.

"But the main centre in the hemisphere where methods of interrogation with torture are used is the United States base of Guantánamo, on the island of Cuba," Ruiz said.

RedSalud DDHH has asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to call for the closure of the Guantánamo detention centre, and to set up a rapporteurship to prevent and punish torture in the hemisphere.

Rights groups believe these measures are necessary because torture is still being practised 26 years after the United Nations approved the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In 1997, the U.N. General Assembly declared Jun. 26 International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

In Venezuela, RedSalud DDHH and other groups traditionally mark the international day by asking Congress to approve a law to prevent and punish torture.

"We have been working on this since 1995. We have documented nearly 500 cases, dozens of which have reached the Attorney General's Office, and some of which have made it to court. Unfortunately after 15 years, impunity still prevails, because not a single sentence has been upheld against any offender," Ruiz complained.

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