Death of Venezuelan navy captain draws US condemnation

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Trump administration joined Venezuelan opposition leaders on Sunday in blasting the death of a Venezuelan navy captain hours after he had appeared in court on suspicion of plotting to assassinate President Nicolás Maduro, bearing what his attorney says were signs of torture.

Capt. Rafael Acosta’s attorney, Alonso Medina Roa, said his client was brought to court in a wheelchair, unable to stand from intense pain and struggling to speak, covered with cuts and with bloody fingernails and black eyes. He died a short time later after a judge ordered him transferred to a hospital.

The case outraged Venezuelan opposition figures, who have repeatedly accused the government of torturing and mistreating alleged political prisoners, and it threatened to derail fragile, Norwegian-backed negotiations with the government that were expected to resume this week.

A senior U.S. official said the death is an example of how Maduro’s government “persecutes” lawmakers, members of the military and common citizens who voice dissent.

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“The dictatorship is as ruthless against those in uniform as they are against civilians,” Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the region, wrote Sunday on Twitter. “No one is safe as long the criminal dictatorship continues in Miraflores and the security services act with impunity.”

Medina Roa, a member of the military’s defense team, told The Associated Press he obtained the information on his client’s condition from a confidential witness in court.

The death comes shortly after United Nations’ human rights chief Michelle Bachelet visited Venezuela to investigate claims of abuse, which apparently led to Saturday’s release of 59 Colombian nationals jailed in the last three years and accused of being part of a terrorist cell, despite never being put on trial.

Venezuela’s government said it will investigate Acosta’s death, but reiterated its claim that he was among a group of military officers and civilians conspiring against Maduro. The probe into Acosta’s alleged crimes was being conducted with “absolute respect for due process and human rights,” officials said in a statement.

Security forces arrested Acosta on June 21 on the outskirts of Caracas, Medina Roa said, adding that his client was healthy at the time. Acosta was transported Friday to the military court, where Medina Roa said the judge suspended the hearing upon seeing the defendant’s poor condition. He was sent to a military hospital, where he died.

The government says that Acosta and five other members of the armed forces or judicial police planned to launch an operation on June 23 to kill Maduro and other top officials, including first lady Cilia Flores and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello. A manhunt is under way for eight other men suspected in the plot, officials say.

Medina Roa said Acosta already had been under investigation after being implicated in an alleged plot last year to overthrow the government.

Acosta’s wife, Waleska de Acosta, denied he planned to kill the president, while acknowledging that her husband opposed Maduro. She and her husband have two children aged 4 and 12, de Acosta said.

“I never imagined that they would come to this, killing a person because he doesn’t agree with the regime,” de Acosta told NTN 24 Venezuela, a television station.

She demanded his body be turned over so she can have a private autopsy performed. Authorities have not said what caused the death.

U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who seeks to oust Maduro, said in a video published late Saturday that he would seek justice for Acosta in international tribunals. He reiterated his call on the military to join his movement to remove Maduro.

“Can’t they hear their comrades calling from the grave?” Guaidó said.

The armed force has remained steadfastly behind Maduro, despite Guaidó’s pleas and the country’s deepening political and economic crisis, which has led an estimated 4 million people to flee abroad.

Maduro endured a failed military uprising on April 30, led by a small group of soldiers supported by Guaidó.

This isn’t the first time the government has come under scrutiny for a politically fraught jail death.

Opposition lawmaker Fernando Alban died in October while in custody of political police. Authorities say he committed suicide, throwing himself from upper floors of the intelligence police headquarters. Opposition leaders reject that claim, saying he died from torture.

Maduro ally and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said the “unfortunate” death of Acosta has triggered a “deep” investigation at the order of Maduro. Padrino López said in a statement that the Venezuela armed forces offered its “sincerest condolences” to Acosta’s family, extending “support and solidarity” to them.

Despite the deep divide, the opposition and Maduro’s government had been in fragile talks mediated by Norway which were expected to continue this week in the Caribbean island of Barbados, according to several sources. One of those, from the opposition, said Acosta’s death may lead to suspension of the meeting. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting had not yet been publicly announced.

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