Venezuela: Attorney General Launches Probe into Corruption Suspect Custody Death

Saab claimed early findings confirmed that Leoner Azuaje committed suicide while detained by the SEBIN intelligence agency.


Caracas, April 22, 2023 ( – The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office has opened an investigation into the death of Leoner Jesús Azuaje Urrea while in the custody of the country’s intelligence agency SEBIN.

Azuaje was reportedly found dead in his cell at SEBIN’s Helicoide facility in Caracas on Thursday afternoon. Attorney General Tarek William Saab broke the news and the working theory that the death had been a suicide. He appointed two prosecutors to investigate.

On Friday, Saab presented preliminary investigation findings via his Twitter account. He stated that an autopsy found the cause of death to be mechanical asphyxiation as a result of Azuaje having hung himself with his bedsheets in his cell.

The country’s top prosecutor added that the detainee reportedly left a suicide note and that prior psychological evaluations had found “mental disorders” and “signs of anxiety attacks.”

The 38-year-old Azuaje had been charged with corruption in the early hours of Wednesday. He had been at the helm of the state-owned cardboard corporation Cartones de Venezuela. He was arraigned alongside Ysmel Serrano Flórez and Salem Hassoun Atrach who were accused of participating in the so-called PDVSA-Crypto embezzlement scheme.

The wide-reaching anti-corruption probe has targeted alleged illicit dealings in the oil industry and several other state-owned companies. There have been 61 arrests so far.

The death of an inmate in police custody, alongside a leaked photo of his body, sparked discussions on social media, with commentators calling for an independent expert autopsy and questioning why an inmate that was supposedly found to be a suicide risk was left unsupervised.

Azuaje’s mother Rosalía Urrea and sister Mónica published a video on Friday afternoon asking authorities to “protect” the family, including the deceased’s wife and children.

The relatives referred to Azuaje as an “irreproachable” person and called his arrest “a mistake.” According to Urrea, he was detained on April 14 and the family was unaware of his whereabouts until his arraignment earlier this week.

Azuaje’s wife Claudia Pimentel also published a video on social media, asking Venezuelan authorities to ensure her safety and that of her daughters. Pimentel likewise called for protection from the Peru and Spain embassies, given her Peruvian nationality and Azuaje’s parents being Spanish nationals.

Finally, Pimentel called for her husband’s death to be thoroughly investigated. “On social media no one believes it [the suicide],” she said. “We don’t know what is going on.”

Saab and the Attorney General’s Office will be motivated to settle lingering doubts about Azuaje’s death given an ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into alleged human rights abuses committed by state security forces.

The Maduro government has repeatedly denounced the ICC process, led by Prosecutor Karim Khan, as biased and politicized. However, Caracas has sought to collaborate with the Hague-based court and allowed the ICC to open an office in the Venezuelan capital.

Two of the cases investigated by the ICC pertain to the in-custody deaths of Fernando Albán and Rafael Acosta Arévalo.

Albán, an opposition councilman, fell to his death from a tenth-floor window in October 2018. Authorities originally ruled it a suicide. However, the investigation was reopened following pressure from multilateral organizations, including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and two SEBIN officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Albán had been accused of involvement in the August 2018 assassination attempt against President Maduro.

For his part, former navy captain Acosta Arévalo was reportedly tortured to death by two members of the DGCIM counter-intelligence agency who were handed 30-year prison sentences. Acosta had been accused of terrorism for his alleged participation in a coup plot.