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LATIN AMERICA | 12-04-2023 13:07

Venezuela rights abuse victims hopeful ICC will bring peace

Victims of alleged human rights violations in Venezuela say they're hopeful an International Criminal Court probe into killings and torture will bring them some closure.

Victims of alleged human rights violations under Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are hopeful an International Criminal Court probe into killings and torture will bring them some closure.

They are looking to ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, who in March asked the court to authorise the reopening of an investigation into a clampdown that has left more than 100 dead since the eruption of anti-government protests in 2017.

Khan informed the court there was a "reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed."

Venezuela accuses Khan of bias and says it has itself prosecuted hundreds for violations. But the ICC prosecutor insists the efforts are insufficient.

Loved ones of victims share their stories.

 

'Not a crime'

University student Juan Pablo Pernalete died on April 26, 2017 in Caracas, struck in the chest with a tear gas cannister fired by a military officer during a protest. 

He was 20 years old. 

"Juan Pablo always went out to protest... I would say to him: 'Juan, I’m afraid, they are murdering boys'," said Elvira de Pernalete from her home in Caracas, adorned with her son's basketball medals.

"He would say to me: 'Mum, protesting is not a crime, protesting means that things are not right.' And I kept praying to God that my son would come back."

Elvira was cooking when she received a call to say that her son had been wounded.

At the clinic, they told her he had died.

"I went mad. I started throwing things, I started running... until I got to [the bed] where my son was... I said: 'Get up, Juan, get up from there!'" she recalled.

Officials claimed the young man had died at the hands of fellow demonstrators before finally conceding his death had been due to a tear gas cannister.

In 2021, 13 military officers were charged with unintentional homicide.

Eleven are back at work, according to Pernalete's mother, and two are on the run. A pre-trial hearing has been postponed 10 times.

The young man's parents filed a civil case which was dismissed last year. They have lodged an appeal.

"We need the investigation to continue in international bodies," said De Pernalete. "It is the only way we can ever have some peace."

 

'They kept his phone'

Opposition politician Fernando Albán, 56, fell to his death on October 8, 2018 – three days after he was arrested – from the 10th floor of Venezuela's intelligence service headquarters in Caracas.

The government said it was suicide, but activists and friends claimed he was thrown from a window to erase evidence of torture.

Albán had been accused of involvement in a 2018 attack with explosives-laden drones against Maduro.

"All his rights were violated: he was subjected to arbitrary detention... torture and death in custody," Albán's widow Meudy Osío said in New York, where she lives with her two children.

"He had bruises, cuts, scratches... The lawyers told me there were signs of torture," she recalled.

Two intelligence officials were sentenced in December 2021 to five years and 10 months each in jail for Albán's death.

According to Osío, they successfully appealed and are free today.

Albán was arrested after returning from New York where he had celebrated his birthday, Osío recalled.

"We never saw the photos he took of his birthday... They kept his phone, and the money he had on him."

 

'At close range'

Anrry Chinchilla died on April 26, 2019, at the age of 30, in an anti-crime operation conducted in a poor Caracas neighbourhood by the FAES special forces unit, since dissolved after hundreds of complaints of extrajudicial killings.

Today, his photo stands on a table surrounded by religious trinkets in his parents' apartment next to a card declaring "I love you, Dad" made by his daughter, 10.

Chinchilla's father, Gregorio, said the young man's sister had heard him being killed from the window of the apartment.

"They took him from [the apartment] and took him to the courtyard. They used a sheet from the clothesline to shield them. It was then that she heard the... three shots," said Gregorio Chinchilla.

His family claim a policeman told a neighbor that Chinchilla was taken by mistake.

"He had no criminal record," said Chinchilla Senior.

"They made a spectacle of it... They said: 'surrender, surrender, drop the gun'," he described. "They simulate a confrontation, then they made him kneel and shot him."

Chinchilla said he saw his son’s body in the hospital morgue. "I was not allowed to touch it... I saw three shots at close range... all in the chest."

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by Esteban Rojas with Ana Fernández, AFP

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