Death of Detained Opposition Leader Shakes up Venezuelan Politics

The mysterious death of city councilman of the Libertador Municipality (Caracas) Fernando Albán has shaken up Venezuelan politics. While the government says he committed suicide by jumping out of a tenth story window of the intelligence police (SEBIN) headquarters, the opposition says he was thrown and accuses the Maduro government of replicating the worst tactics of dictatorships past.

Alban, a popular leader of the Primero Justicia party, was arrested on October 5 at the Caracas airport upon his return from a trip with his family to the US. For two days after his detention, relatives were denied access to Albán or to his arrest files. On October 7 they were informed that he was detained at the intelligence police (SEBIN) center in Caracas. Relatives and lawyers were finally able to contact him via text messages that day and, according to their reports, he wrote he was being “pressured” by intelligence officers to confess to participation in the August 4 drone attack against Maduro.

One of the three lawyers of the team that was to take on Albán’s defense has declared they were able to talk to Albán on the night of October 7. According to him, the Councilor said he was being “threatened” and told that the only way he could get out of prison was to name Julio Borges, the exiled leader of Primero Justicia, as the organizer of the drone attack. The lawyer added that when the defense team met Albán he did not show signs of torture, “but he was very tired as he had not been allowed to sleep since his arrest.”

On October 8, via a televised call to the government TV station, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said that Albán had “asked to go to the bathroom and from there he threw himself from the 10th floor [of the SEBIN building].” Later that same day, Interior Minister Nestor Revelor (@NestorReverol) said via Twitter that Albán had been detained in a “waiting room” of the SEBIN building and had suddenly “thrown himself off a window of the facilities, into the air, which produced his death.”

No charges had yet been brought against Albán at the time of his death, but in an series of Twitter feeds Reverol wrote that Albán “had been detained in the SEBIN since October 5 under investigation in relation to the frustrated magnicidio (assassination of a head of state), and because of his involvement in destabilizing actions managed from abroad, of which there is enough evidence.”

Reactions to the alleged suicide were swift. Opposition leaders immediately doubted the official version pointing to the inconsistencies in the declarations of government officials, to the personal character of Fernando Albán, a devout Catholic, and to ongoing allegations that political prisoners in the hands of the SEBIN are being mistreated and even tortured. Primero Justicia leader Henrique Capriles said he did not believe the government’s version and that Alban’s family needs to know the truth. He also said that the death should “not be used for political purposes by extremists on both sides.” Julio Borges said that the event was “nothing short of taking a person, kidnaping that person, simple persecution against the opposition leadership, against Primero Justicia and against me, and subjecting that person to the cruelest tortures, seeking to instill fear.”

The opposition controlled National Assembly issued a statement calling the death a “homicide” by the government and asking the Organization of American States to launch an investigation, but also claiming that the Assembly itself will carry out its own investigation. The coffin with the remains of Albán was the object of a ceremony at the National Assembly before being taken for a final funeral ceremony at the University Parrish of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, where Cardinal Urosa Savino held a mass.

Human rights activists have also reacted strongly. Humans rights organization PROVEA called the death “a state crime.” And added in a statement: “It is the direct consequence of the increase of state terrorism by the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro which, in a systematic and generalized way, persecutes, imprisons, and tortures hundreds of opposition politicians, with the aim of generating terror in the population and of consolidating its social and political control.” Lígia Bolivar, director of the Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andrés Bello said the state “is responsible for the life, security and integrity of any person under its custody,” and therefore, even if the suicide versions were confirmed, the state should be held responsible because Albán “died violently while in state custody.”

The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference immediately published a statement expressing “concern and indignation for the detention that have been made in the country by state security forces. Many of these detentions have no legal backing and have generated tragedies for Venezuelan families.” Specifically referring to Albán’s case, the bishops doubt the official “suicide” version, pointing to the religious convictions of the opposition leader: “It’s no secret that Councilor Albán held deep religious convictions and faith values ratifying his option for life, not death, and also his commitment to the poorest of the parish in which he served.”

There have also been notable international reactions. The Lima Group, which includes 14 countries of the Americas, including Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, expressed concern for the death and urged the Venezuelan government to carry out “an immediate, impartial, and independent inquiry, with international backing, in order to clear the event and circumstances of this terrible death, and to adopt the necessary [corrective] measures.” The government of Brazil also issued a strongly worded statement: “The circumstances of the death of Fernando Albán inside detention facilities and under the legal control of the Venezuelan authorities raise legitimate and serious doubts about the eventual responsibilities and call for the most rigorous, independent, and transparent investigation.” The government of Spain summoned the Venezuelan ambassador in Madrid, Mario Isea, to explain the event. Spain’s foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, expressed “profound concerns” for Alban’s death and also called for an independent inquiry. A spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that her office would include Albán’s death in its investigation of human rights violations in Venezuela.

The event dampened the visit to Venezuela of US Senate Bob Corker, who had met president Maduro and opposition groups –although the main opposition parties declared they would not meet the Senator. “Today in Venezuela, Fernando Albán, a young opposition leader, died while in the government’s custody. This is disturbing and the government has a responsibility to ensure all understand how that could have happened,” wrote Senator Corker on his Twitter account (@SenBobCorker) on October 8.

Only one government official, Ombudsman Alfredo Ruiz, abstained from describing Alban’s death as suicide. He asked the government to “maximize security measures in detention centers” and to launch an investigation in order to establish responsibilities for the death of the city Counselor.

At the moment this post is being written, government media is giving as little coverage as possible to the event. Apart from the live transmission of Saab’s declarations, and Nestor Reverol’s Twitter line, only TELESUR reporter Madelein García has written on October 9, also on twitter (@madeleintlSUR), seemingly quoting a declaration from Néstor Reverol: “Fernando Alban was detained because he was allegedly part of the case of the magnicidio against president Nicolás Maduro. ‘In detention, Alban declared he was Julio Borges’ liaison in Venezuela and that he had received funds for the magnicidio and for destabilization’.”

The arrest and death of Alban is the latest turn in the crack-down against opposition leaders after the drone attack. The most notable case is that of National Assembly deputy Juan Requesens, arrested without a warrant in August 8 and still in custody. The government says that his taped “confessions” link Julio Borges and the Colombian government in a wide conspiracy against the Venezuelan government, which includes the drone attack. Human Right organizations claimed the confessions where coerced after a video was leak showing Requesens in soiled underpants. The government claims the video shows part of a “medical inspection” of the detainee.