Torture Case of PSUV Activist Fuels Debate Over Police Reform in Venezuela

Venezuelan authorities released and dropped all charges against Mairim Delgado, a student and active member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), but her allegations of torture and denial of due process at the hands of security forces remain unresolved.

By James Suggett
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Mérida, October 22nd 2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com) -- On Wednesday evening, Venezuelan authorities released and dropped all charges against Mairim Delgado, a student and active member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), but her allegations of torture and denial of due process at the hands of security forces remain unresolved.

Officers from Venezuela’s national intelligence agency, the DISIP, arrested 29 year-old Delgado and three friends at gunpoint on September 24th outside of a bank where, the officers charged, she and her friends had previously committed an ATM robbery.

Over the following two weeks, Delgado continuously denied the charges, as interrogators tortured her using a combination of electrocution, confinement in small spaces, threats of execution, attempted rape with a foreign object, and blows to her face, ears, back, legs, and groin, according to Delgado. Her torturers repeatedly referred to her disparagingly as a “damned Chavist,” referring to her political affiliation with the PSUV and support for President Hugo Chavez, Delgado said.

Subsequently, the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the DISIP, and the National Assembly Commission on Human Rights opened investigations of Delgado’s allegations. The investigations have not concluded, and their findings so far are in dispute due to contrasting public statements by public officials and Delgado and her lawyer.

Venezuela’s top public defender, Gabriela Ramirez, stated publicly that investigators and legal representatives were given “immediate access” to Delgado, but Delgado and her lawyer say investigators and legal representatives were repeatedly denied or delayed contact with her.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega and Minister for Justice and Internal Affairs Tarek El-Aissami issued strong denials of Delgado’s accusations, citing an earlier testimony filed by the DISIP in which Delgado affirmed that she was not tortured. Delgado and her lawyer, however, say she was deliberately intimidated by the presence of two of her torturers during the recording of the testimony.

Ortega and El-Aissami asserted that the forensic exams, the results of which have not been made public, revealed that she had not been tortured.

Ortega said the accusations are “part of that matrix of opinion aimed at generating distrust in the justice system and disqualifying the institutions of the state,” while El-Aissami said, “We deny that within the DISIP this young woman has suffered any violation of human rights... we reject that version, it did not occur.”

In contrast, Delgado’s lawyer and family members say the forensic exams revealed she had indeed been tortured in all the ways she described in her accusations. The exams also showed she needed immediate medical attention for stomach pain and infections of her ear and urinary tract as a result of her treatment while in custody, they say.

The DISIP and the public officials did not offer a public explanation for Delgado’s release on Wednesday, nor did they explain why the charges against her were suddenly dropped.

The Campaign for Police Reform

Meanwhile, community organizations, NGOs, and alternative media outlets continue to rally for full disclosure of the investigation of Delgado’s allegations. They say her case reveals the urgent need to overcome the decades-old culture of corruption and repression in Venezuela’s public security forces by accelerating the government’s police reform efforts, which began in 2006.

The prominent online publication Aporrea and print publication Proceso, both of which strongly support and also criticize the Chavez government from a revolutionary standpoint, issued a joint statement in support of Delgado.  

“The contradictions that exist between the version of the family members and that of the minister and attorney general indicate that transparency and the will to fully investigate in order to know the truth are more important than institutional image and justification,” the statement asserted. 

The statement also attributed the persistence of police abuse to the legacy of the Fourth Republic, or the series of neo-liberal governments under which the DISIP persecuted leftist organizations and cracked down on popular protests during the four decades preceding Chavez’s election in 1998. 

“One thing is the currently existing policies of the state, as well as good intentions, and another thing is the police culture inherited from the old bourgeois Fourth Republic state, which we must detect and recognize in order to be able to remove it, as part of the deepening of the revolution,” the statement continued.

“As alternative media... we are clear-headed about our role in moments of transition in which we must call out decisively and with revolutionary respect the errors that impede us from advancing toward a liberatory model, which, we repeat, for us is none other than socialism,” the statement said.

In a recent press conference, Delgado’s sister, who is also an active member of the PSUV and has been a leader of the campaign in Delgado’s defense, said, “We need to assess how deeply the process of reform is reaching in the police and especially the DISIP, to what extent they are part of the revolutionary process or they are counter-revolutionaries disguised as revolutionaries.”

In 2006, the government carried out a nation-wide consultation with local police forces and community organizations. In 2008, the National Assembly passed a National Police Law that outlines a new model of law enforcement based on that consultation. Earlier this year, the government created a national university for police training, in which the first class of national police began studying in recent months.

However, the National Assembly has lagged on the passage of a necessary law to punish and prevent torture, which the Constitution of 1999 explicitly mandates, according to the Support Network for Justice and Peace (Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz), a Caracas-based NGO that has assisted the victims of police abuse for a quarter of a century.

According to General Coordinator Pablo Fernandez, the Red de Apoyo has treated 40 cases of torture and other abuse by state security forces over the past twelve months, a rate that is consistent with that of preceding years.   

“We are living a process of democratic transformations and since 1999 we have a constitutional mandate that is clear, precise, and explicit in the prohibition of torture,” Fernandez said in an interview with the newspaper CiudadCCS this week. “This is not about torture in the Chavez government or torture before Chavez arrived... I think it has to do with the culture that prevails in the state security institutions, which has been maintained unscathed over the course of decades.”