Families demand answers after fire in Venezuelan jail

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s head prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, reports that 68 people were killed in a jail fire on Wednesday morning. Devastated families gathered outside the jail to demand answers from lawmakers.

Relatives of inmates waiting outside of police station after the fire. Image Courtesy of Juan Barreto.

The fire started in the detention center of a police headquarters in Valencia, 100 miles west of Caracas. It quickly ripped through the building and engulfed the jail. At the time, relatives were lined up outside waiting to enter so frantic visitors witnessed the blaze. Saab announced that all of the fatalities were inmates except for two women. He promised an investigation and appointed four prosecutors to give more detail on the tragic event.

Local opposition lawmaker, Juan Miguel Matheus, said that the events were compounded by the delay of information. After the fire had been extinguished, no one was allowed to see the bodies. He explained, “part of the drama is that there was no list of dead because many of the bodies were incinerated and it was impossible to recognize them.” He believes the fatalities actually reached 78.

One mother of an inmate, Carmen Caldera, said the authorities were withholding information from them. She said, “I don’t have any information on him, I don’t know anything. We want information about our family members. We need information. Look at how desperate we are.” Jesus Santander, secretary-general of the Carabobo state government, responded that family members will be informed of the total number of victims at an “opportune moment.”

Once journalists and photographers started arriving, family members began pushing the police to enter. They clashed with police and threw rocks at them. The officers resorted to tear gas to drive the families back.

This fire struck during the country’s historic economic and political crisis. The shortage of basic goods and significant social unrest has had adverse effects on an already overcrowded prison system. Inmates lacked food, water, and medical care, even though guns and drugs were plentiful. The lawmaker, Matheus, reported that at least 180 inmates were crammed into the detention center which was supposed to house 60. Recently, there have been inmate strikes all over Venezuela to protest situations like these.

One nonprofit prison watchdog group, A Window to Freedom, said the blaze began after inmates set fire to their mattresses in an attempt to escape. The source reports that the fire caused so much smoke that people started to die in the enclosed space. All of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation and the two female fatalities came from conjugal visits.

The UN human rights body released a statement from Geneva calling for an investigation to establish the causes of the deaths, identify those responsible, and pay reparations to families. Additionally, Governor Rafael Lacava has promised to form a group that will work to “decongest police detention centers and create new spaces for prisoners.”

For more information, please see:

NY Times – Venezuela, Accustomed to Tragedy, Is Shaken Again by Horrific Jail Fire – 29 March 2018

BBC News – Venezuela fire: Relatives want answers after 68 die – 29 March 2018

Washington Post – Families demand answers after blaze kills at least 68 in overcrowded Venezuelan jail – 29 March 2918

CNN – Families demand answers after deadly Venezuela jail fire – 29 March 2018

Reuters – Outrage, criticism of government follow deadly Venezuelan jail fire – 29 March 2018

Teenage rape victim dies during childbirth in Paraguay

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

ASUNCION, Paraguay – A 14-year old rape victim died during childbirth in Paraguay last week. She died while doctors tried to perform an emergency cesarean section. The baby survived.

Woman holds a sign that says “stop now” at protest against child sexual abuse in Asuncion. Image Courtesy of Cesar Olmedo.

In Paraguay, abortion is illegal for pregnancies that result from rape or incest. It is also illegal where the pregnancy poses a serious, but not life-threatening, health risk to a woman. It is illegal even where there is no hope that the fetus will survive outside the womb. Therefore, abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances except where a pregnancy has life-threatening complications.

The name of this 14-year-old girl has not been released, but she is known as J.S.P. She was raped by a 37-year-old man which caused her pregnancy. Local media reports that the man was arrested for rape this week.

J.S.P. spent 22 days in the hospital with pregnancy complications and a urinary tract infection before going into labor. Doctors at the National Hospital of Itaugua tried desperately to save her life during the operation, but she suffered three cardiac arrests and died. The doctor and director of the hospital said, ‘it was so sudden, in minutes the cardiac arrest happened. Her body was not ready for a pregnancy.” Fortunately, the doctors managed to save the baby.

As it is a deeply personal issue, there is no report of whether or not this teenager wanted an abortion. Even if she had, Paraguay’s strict abortion laws took the choice away from her. She did not have the option of a legal abortion. This means she did not have the opportunity to discuss the situation with her doctor or evaluate the risks of carrying the child to term.

International experts have said that blocking a rape survivor’s access to abortion can amount to torture. The Committee against Torture commented on Paraguay’s situation saying, “the abortion ban means survivors are constantly reminded of the violation committed against them, which causes serious traumatic stress and carries a risk of long-lasting psychological problems.”

The Ministry of health reports that four girls suffer sexual violence every day in Paraguay. Also, two girls under the age of 15 give birth every day. Many of these pregnancies are the result of sexual abuse by relatives and stepfathers. Correspondingly, a United Nations study found that pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for teenage girls in the area. The World Health Organization points out that globally, the risk of maternal death is four times higher among teenagers less than 16-years-old than among women in their twenties.

Amnesty International reiterated its call for Paraguay to ease abortion laws and improve protection of girls from sexual violence. The Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas, stated, ‘it’s not just the access to abortion rights, it has to be about comprehensive health care, it has to be about sex education, it has to be about prevention of violence, sexual violence in particular.”

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch – 14, Pregnant from Rape, Dead in Childbirth – 26 March 2018

The Guardian – Abortion laws are not ‘pro life’ when they ignore women – 25 March 2018

Gympie Times – 14-year-old girl dies in childbirth after being raped – 24 March 2018

Metro – Rape victim, 14, died in childbirth because her young body wasn’t ready for pregnancy – 24 March 2018

Reuters – Death of Paraguay Teen rape victim in childbirth fuels abortion debate – 23 March 2018

Argentine human rights lawyer escapes political prison in Venezuela

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – The Argentine-Venezuelan human rights lawyer and activist Marcelo Crovato has escaped political prison under Nicolas Maduro’s regime. He made his way into Colombia over the weekend and flew to Argentina with his family on Monday.

Political prisoner who escaped from Venezuela. Image Courtesy of Enrique Garcia Medina.

Crovato was arrested during an anti-government protest in 2014 while working for a rights group that defended young protestors. He offered legal assistance to those who were arrested during the protest. At the time, there had been a wave of demonstrations against Maduro’s socialist government. The unrest left forty-three dead and thousands injured. Crovato was arrested while trying to offer legal aid to people whose homes were being raided. One Argentine newspaper lists his crimes as “public incitement, obstruction of the public highway, instigation to the disobedience of the laws, and association to commit a crime.”

As a result, Cravato spent ten months in jail.  During his time at the prison where he had once served as director, Cravato attempted to commit suicide twice. He also suffered from “a carcinoma in the skin” and “chikungunya.” Because of his frail health, he was granted house arrest in February 2015. The entire three years of imprisonment were suffered without trial, sentence, or any preliminary hearings. Many of his rights were violated and he was given no due process.

Now, Crovato has escaped. He remarks, “I am so happy to be free, but so sad for what’s left behind.” He declined to give full details of his escape for fear of retaliation against friends or relatives by Venezuelan intelligence agents. However, he reveals that he thought of a silent plan to cross into Colombia and only his wife and some relatives were aware. He left without saying good bye to his parents because he didn’t want to compromise the plan. As difficult as this was, he was afraid of dying in prison and felt that the country was dominated by Maduro. He said, “fear never disappears when you are under a police state where there is no rule.”

Crovato declines to give details about where he crossed or what vehicle he took. He is avoiding being tracked and adds, “if there is no information, they will not know what or where to look and I will go to be able to protect people who helped.”

In Colombia, he was reunited with his wife and children. He will seek medical assistance in Argentina to cope with his skin cancer. Still, he promises to continue the fight to set Venezuela free.

Crovato’s departure is the latest in a string of escapes by detained activists. However, several hundred still remain imprisoned under Maduro’s regime.

For more information, please see:

El Nacional – Marcelo Crovato in Argentina: “It seems unreal to be here” – 20 March 2018

Reuters – Argentine human rights lawyer is latest Venezuelan detainee to flee – 19 March 2018

La Voz – An Argentine detained in Venezuela during the 2014 protests, escaped to Colombia – 18 March 2018

El Nuevo Herald – Maduro escapes another political prisoner: Argentine-Venezuelan Marcelo Crovato – 18 March 2018

La Nación – The only Argentine political prisoner in Venezuela escaped to Colombia – 17 March 2018

Indigenous women demand end to extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

QUITO, Ecuador – Nearly 100 indigenous women of the Ecuadorian Amazon traveled to the capital to protest outside of the Presidential Palace. The women spent five days protesting and demanding a meeting with President Lenin Moreno to personally deliver their political mandate.

Women from the Ecuadorian Amazon gather outside the Presidential Palace. Image Courtesy of Jose Jacome.

Many of the women travelled on long journeys by foot and by bus to gather for this protest. The purpose was to address the oil and mining activities in the Amazon and its harsh impact on indigenous women. The protesters sought a personal meeting with President Moreno to deliver the “Mandate of Amazonian Women Defenders of the Jungle of the Bases against Extractivism.” The mandate includes 22 points that mostly involve putting an end to exploiting the Amazon. It points out that the industry has had a dire consequence on women in particular.

One point of the document refers to land-use issues. It demands the annulment of contracts granted by the government to the oil and mining companies. Also, it demands “that the indigenous territories and peoples be declared free of activities of extractive products such as oil, mining, hydroelectrics and logging.”

The protestors explain that women who live around extractive areas are often the most vulnerable populations. After contamination or community displacement destroys their traditional lifestyles in the jungle, women tend to face more economic barriers than men. One study by Oxfam reports that women struggle to find work in local towns, which often results in increased cases of position, drug abuse, and alcoholism.

Women arrived at the presidential palace carrying anti-extractive banners, wearing traditional clothing, chanting, and vowing not to leave without speaking to the president. They continued to return throughout the week and made speeches through a loudspeaker in the central plaza. However, officials reported that President Moreno could not attend to the group since he was traveling home from Chile on a work visit. The protestors stayed for five days and authorities eventually agreed to a meeting between them and the President.

President Moreno’s government has made several advancements with the indigenous community compared to the last administration. There have been improvements in areas such as bilingual education and reinforcing free, prior, and informed consent regulations for mining projects. President Moreno was praised by environmentalists last year after promising the United Nations he would take steps to protect the Amazon. However, Ecuador’s economy has heavily depended on oil and gas for economic stability and growth. In February, the government held an oil auction and handed out several new mining concessions.

Indigenous women are demanding more of their government. Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous woman, told the president, Your government cannot permit that our rights continue to be violated. Ecuador has to change its energy policy. It could be an example for the world.”

For more information, please see:

Taipei Times – Indigenous women call on Ecuador not to drill for oil – 25 March 2018

Reuters – From Ecuador’s Amazon to president’s palace, indigenous women demand end to drilling – 23 March 2018

The Guardian – Keep off our land, indigenous women tell Ecuador’s president – 23 March 2018

Mongabay – Indigenous Amazonian women demand end to extraction – 22 March 2018

Telesur – Ecuador: Indigenous Women Protest Lack of ‘Consultation,’ Environmental Damage Caused by Mineral, Oil Extraction in Amazon – 14 March 2018

UNHCR asks other nations to treat Venezuelans as refugees

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BOGOTA, Colombia – In light of the continuing crisis in Venezuela, the United Nations has asked the region to treat the population as “refugees” who are unable to go home, as opposed to mere economic migrants. Meanwhile, Colombia is calling out for urgent help along its border because of the humanitarian “catastrophe.”

Venezuelan citizens cross the border into Colombia. Image Courtesy of Fernando Vergara.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, released a three-page report with new guidance for governments to address the situation of persons in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance. It is titled “Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans.” The report recommends that countries do not deport, expel or forcibly return Venezuelans in view of the current situation. Also, it asks countries to guarantee refugees residency and the right to work, even if they are residing in the country illegally or without proper identification papers.

The increase of migrants has exploded in the past few years. Since 2014, there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of Venezuelan nationals seeking asylum. While 94,000 have been able to access refugee procedures in 2017, many more have not. Most seek legal arrangements that will help them get the right to work and access to health and education as quickly as possible. Still, hundreds of thousands reside illegally in asylum countries. This has resulted in high levels of exploitation, trafficking, violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, and xenophobia.

In response to these startling numbers, UNHCR encourages states to provide Venezuelans with access to refugee procedures. It calls on governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses, including alternative stay arrangements and temporary visas. Additionally, it calls for other programs that will supply basic needs of health, education, family unity, freedom of movement, and shelter. UNHCR stresses the importance of people not being deported or forcibly returned to Venezuela.

These guidelines seem to reproach Colombia’s current methods. As an overwhelmed neighbor, Colombia has been deporting and barring Venezuelans. Last month, Colombian immigration began requiring new Venezuelan arrivals to present passports even though they have become extremely difficult for people to obtain. These methods have decreased the number of Venezuelans entering the country on a daily basis by 30%.

However, more than 600,000 Venezuelans have already entered Colombia in the past couple of years. Border towns, like Cucuta, are struggling to maintain their homes. Officials have encouraged foreign aid to be sent to Colombia since it is hosting the bulk of the migrants. Organizations such as the World Food Program are present in Colombia helping to deal with the crisis.

The director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said “Colombia has made so much progress in the past many years with peace and the last thing it needs now is for all that success to be undone. So I will be expressing to other nations the severity of this crisis and why they must come to help the Colombian people immediately.”

Currently, UNHCR is working with governments to address the basic needs of the crisis. It developed a regional response plan that covers eight countries and the Caribbean sub-region. Specifically, the goal is to strengthen national asylum and other international protection processes to foster an effective response to this crisis.

For more information, please see:

IRIN – As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes – 13 March 2018

TRT World – UN says refugee claims by Venezuelans surging – 13 March 2018

UNHCR – As Venezuelans flee throughout Latin America, UNHCR issues new protection guidance – 13 March 2018

Miami Herald – As Venezuelans flee collapsing country, UN asks other nations to treat them as refugees – 12 March 2018

ABC News – UN official warns of humanitarian “catastrophe” in Venezuela – 12 March 2018