Caracas, July 29, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A coalition of LGBTQI+ and human rights organizations have rejected the criminalization of 33 men arrested during a raid on a private sauna located in Valencia, Carabobo state.
The arrests took place on Sunday, July 23, after the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) raided the Avalon Man Club, a bar sauna frequently visited by the LGBTQI+ community, where the 30 men, two masseurs and the owner were present. According to the local press, the police came after receiving a call from neighbors complaining of disturbances.
However, a family member of one detainee told the press that the sauna is not surrounded by houses but by other businesses that only open in the morning.
The police reportedly tried to blackmail the establishment owner by denouncing that an orgy was being filmed inside the place after finding condoms, private sexual videos on some phones, and five clients in towels using the sauna area. According to local sources, the Avalon Man Club receives contraceptive donations from LGBTQI+ collectives to give away to visitors.
The 33 men were taken to the Carabobo state courthouse where they were kept for 72 hours without contact with their families and lawyers, who rallied to denounce the arbitrary detention, the violation of their human rights, and demand their freedom.
Following two judicial hearings, the 30 clients of the sauna were released on Wednesday but ordered to report to authorities every 30 days until they go to trial in six months. They were charged with lewd conduct and association to commit crimes while the owner of the place and the two workers were accused of noise pollution and had bail set.
Besides the controversial arrest, the police posted photos of the 33 men as well as their identity cards and presented phones and condoms as evidence. The images were published by journalists and media outlets on social networks. One publication stated that the detainees were having a sex party, using drugs and that one was HIV positive. This sparked outrage across the country and led the mobilizations in the capital.
“Being gay is not a crime!” chanted a group of activists on Thursday in front of the Attorney General’s Office in Caracas following the news that all men would face trial, denouncing that this would set a “dangerous precedent” of criminalization against the LGBTQI+ community.
The activists met with the heads of the human rights and the LGBTIQ+ prosecutor’s offices and delivered a document calling for the immediate dismissal of the case. There has not been any public statement from state authorities so far.
“This is extremely serious because it is an escalation of a process of criminalization and persecution against people just because of their sexual orientation”, Yendri Velásquez, coordinator of the Venezuelan Observatory of LGBTIQ+ Violence, told the press.
He explained that the people arrested were in a private recreational space, exercising their right to association and enjoyment. “There are no reasons to charge them for any crime. It is totally illegal and arbitrary, which makes this a dangerous precedent for any LGBTQI+ person in the country.”
Furthermore, Velásquez said that the raid happened without a search warrant, making the entire procedure “illegal, null and void.”
Velásquez added that the private sauna has been open for more than four years and never received complaints until now. “I am concerned that this is a consequence of the alliances between state officials with anti-rights groups who oppose the rights and dignity of people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. They are being financed and have an agenda that goes against our lives.”
At least four other LGBTQI+ entertainment venues have been raided since 2021 while there have been reports of police mistreatment against transgender people. In recent months, religious groups have also received support from state officials during protests demanding to ban sexual education in schools and rejecting the approval of anti-discrimination legislation.
During Thursday’s protest, the human rights and LGBTQI+ collectives also urged an investigation against the police officers and judicial authorities involved in the case for violating the laws and Constitution.
Speaking to the press, trans activist and lawyer Richelle Briceño said that the entire process responded to state homophobia “because none of the charges have any ground in the Venezuelan penal code.”
“The actual crimes were committed by the prosecutors and the judge who conspired to charge [the 33 men] with crimes that do not exist,” denounced the activist who added that “the silence of the Ombudsman’s Office is also complicit.”
Briceño likewise demanded legal consequences for the journalists and media outlets who published the names and faces of the 33 men and even their HIV status in violation of the country’s 2017 Law against Hatred.
“The media publicly humiliated these people, which is a crime in this country. They exposed their photos, their names, ID numbers, and telephone numbers. The state institutions and the media acted as if we were in the 80s and 90s,” explained the lawyer.
Briceño concluded that this case will have “an immense social impact” on the entire country and represents a setback for the LGBTQI+ community in Venezuela.