Venezuela’s defence ministry on Sunday confirmed the death of a naval officer who opposition leaders and family members said was tortured in custody after his detention over alleged involvement in a coup plot against President Nicolas Maduro.
The United States and other countries condemned the death of Navy Captain Rafael Acosta Arevalo, which came on the heels of a visit by the United Nation’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, to investigate rights violations ranging from extrajudicial killings to forced disappearances. Bachelet is set to release a report about her visit on Friday.
Acosta was taken to a military tribunal on June 28 but he fainted before the hearing could begin, the defence ministry said in a brief statement on Sunday, leading the judge in the case to transfer him to a military hospital.
“Despite providing him with the appropriate medical attention, he died,” the statement said.
Opposition leader Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to declare himself interim president, said late on Saturday that Acosta died “after being tortured”.
The US, which supports Guaido, also accused Maduro’s government of torturing Acosta to death.
The officer “died while in the custody of Maduro’s thugs and their Cuban advisers”, the Department of State said in a statement.
“The United States calls on the democracies of the world to join us in condemning this latest violation of human rights and in applying pressure to achieve accountability against the aggressors,” the State Department added.
No hay palabras para describir este abominable hecho. Hemos establecido contacto inmediato con la familia y la comisión #ONU en Vzla. He girado instrucciones a embajadores y equipo internacional para elevar denuncia a Gobiernos y especialmente a Alta Comisionada @mbachelet https://t.co/DEB49Zt6kb
— Juan Guaidó (@jguaido) June 29, 2019
Acosta was barely conscious in a court hearing on Friday after having been beaten and tortured, the officer’s wife Waleska Perez said in an interview with a Miami television station, based on information she said she received from Acosta’s defence lawyers.
“They tortured him so much that they killed him,” Perez said in an interview with EVTV Miami from Colombia.
The information ministry and the state prosecutor’s office late on Saturday issued statements about Acosta’s death, but neither described the cause. The information ministry did not immediately respond to an email from Reuters news agency asking whether or not Acosta had been tortured.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced an “objective, independent and impartial investigation” following the officer’s death.
Acosta was part of a group of 13 people arrested for alleged involvement in a failed “coup” against Maduro. The Maduro government revealed last week that it had thwarted a plot to attack the president, which officials said was planned for June 23 or 24.
The Lima Group, comprising a dozen Latin American countries as well as Canada, condemned the “assassination” of Acosta and called for the intervention of the UN’s Bachelet, who visited Caracas last week and called for the “release” of imprisoned political opponents in the country, which rights group, Foro Penal, said numbered close to 800.
The European Union said Acosta’s death was “another stark illustration of the arbitrary nature of the judicial system” in Venezuela.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly made a series of demands following Acosta’s death, including an investigation by the UN rights chief, an autopsy of Acosta by an “independent international forensic team” and a “verification of the state of health” of military personnel held on accusations of “conspiracy”.
“There are no words to describe this abominable event,” Guaido wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
“We have established immediate contact with the family and the UN commission in Venezuela. I have given instructions to ambassadors and international team to raise complaints to governments and especially to High Commissioner Michele Bachelet,” he added.
The death of Acosta comes amid heightened tensions between Maduro’s government and the opposition following two rounds of unsuccessful talks held in Norway.
Maduro recently said, however, that “dialogue will continue” without specifying a schedule or agenda.
On top of the fraught political situation, Venezuela is also grappling with its most-severe economic crisis in recent history.
According to the UN, more than seven million Venezuelans – a quarter of the country’s population – need emergency humanitarian aid.