Venezuela faces calls for probe after opposition activist dies in custody

The coffin containing Alban’s body was taken to the legislature, where it was placed in the garden and surrounded by politicians and relatives. (Reuters)
Updated 10 October 2018
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Venezuela faces calls for probe after opposition activist dies in custody

  • My father died fighting for democracy and freedom in Venezuela: son Fernando Alban
  • Alban asked to go to the restroom and threw himself from a window: Attorney General

CARACAS: Venezuela faced international calls Tuesday for a “transparent investigation” into the death in custody of an opposition member who the government said threw himself from a 10th-floor window of the headquarters of the state intelligence services.
Fernando Alban, a 52-year-old Caracas city council member accused of taking part in a failed drone attack on President Nicolas Maduro, was in pretrial detention Monday at the time of his death, which the government presented as a suicide.
Attorney General Tarek Saab said on state television that Alban, who had been arrested on Friday, asked to go to the restroom and threw himself from a window.
The death sparked expressions of concern by the United Nations and the European Union, both of which called for a probe.
The US embassy in Caracas said the death was “suspicious.” In August, the United States condemned alleged arbitrary detentions and forced confessions by the Venezuelan government in its investigation of the drone incident.
The coffin containing Alban’s body was taken to the legislature, where — wrapped in a yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag — it was placed in the garden and surrounded by politicians and relatives. The mourners included Alban’s elderly parents and sister.
“My father died fighting for democracy and freedom in Venezuela,” his son Fernando wrote on Twitter.
The legislature is the seat of the opposition-majority national assembly but its power has been usurped by a new lawmaking body — the all-powerful Constituent Assembly created by Maduro and composed of his supporters.
Outraged opposition lawmakers nevertheless agreed a resolution recognizing the government’s “responsibility” for Alban’s death, and calling on the United Nations and the Organization of American States to designate “independent” experts to investigate.
Alban’s remains were later transferred to a chapel at the Central University of Venezuela, where he graduated as a lawyer.
The Maduro government has “an obligation to ensure (Alban’s) safety, personal integrity and dignity,” a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office in Geneva, Ravina Shamdasani, told reporters.
“We are concerned about news of his death... We do indeed call for a transparent investigation to clarify the circumstances of his death,” she added.
In a statement, the European Union also demanded “a thorough and independent investigation” to clarify the circumstances of Alban’s “tragic death.”
“The EU reiterates its call to the Venezuelan government to release all political prisoners,” added EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.
The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, wrote on Twitter that Alban’s death was “the direct responsibility of a torturing and murdering regime.”
Alban’s party, First Justice, blamed the government for the death.
“We hold Maduro and his regime of torture responsible,” it said in a statement.
Alban was among at least 15 people arrested and charged for alleged participation in the August 4 drone incident which Maduro has portrayed as an assassination attempt.
The Venezuelan president was seen reacting on live television to an off-camera explosion while he addressed a military parade in Caracas.
A second explosion was heard and then the assembled troops were seen breaking formation and scattering in panic.
Maduro said the blasts were from explosives-laden drones sent to assassinate him, though opposition figures accuse Maduro of fabricating the incident to step up repression in his country, which is suffering an economic crisis.
Maduro has blamed the drone attack on First Justice founder Julio Borges, who now lives in exile in Colombia.
“Murderers!” Borges said on Twitter. The “cruelty of the dictatorship ended the life of Alban.”
The attorney general promised a thorough investigation.
The visiting US chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said on Twitter that the government had a “responsibility to ensure all understand how that could have happened.”
Alban had traveled to New York last week to visit his children and accompanied Borges to the United Nations. He was arrested on his return to Caracas.
Late Monday, dozens of people with candles held a vigil outside the headquarters of the intelligence service, known as the Sebin, to protest the death.
“This is not suicide, this is homicide,” protesters shouted at guards.
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, also a First Justice member, said the Maduro government was responsible.
“Those of us who knew Fernando know that he could NEVER have acted against his life,” he said on Twitter.
The city councilman’s lawyer, Joel Garcia, told reporters it was too soon to confirm whether the case was a suicide.
The Catholic church, an outspoken critic of the government, has also questioned the official version of his death. The Caracas archdiocese said in a statement Alban had been “serene and calm” and planning social work projects for the poor on Sunday before his arrest.
Interior and Justice Minister General Nestor Reverol lamented the death of the politician who, he said, was “involved in destabilizing acts directed from abroad.”
Venezuela accuses its neighbor Colombia of shielding the authors of the alleged assassination attempt.


Zimbabwe president to return home after deadly turmoil

Police patrol in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 20, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 59 min 52 sec ago
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Zimbabwe president to return home after deadly turmoil

  • A year of troubles in which his administration failed to improve the collapsed economy, narrowly won a disputed election and violently put down anti-government protests has caused widespread concern

HARARE, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe’s president announced on Sunday that he will return home and skip the World Economic Forum after a week of turmoil in which activists have said at least a dozen people have been killed in a government crackdown.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa had been under growing pressure to come home from a two-week overseas visit as accounts emerged of abuses by security forces, including dozens of people wounded by gunfire and others hunted down in their homes and severely beaten.
Zimbabwe has seen days of unrest since Mnangagwa made an announcement more than doubling fuel prices that made the struggling country’s gasoline the most expensive in the world.
Mnangagwa in his Twitter post didn’t mention the violence, saying only that he is returning “in light of the economic situation.”
The first priority, he said, “is to get Zimbabwe calm, stable and working again.”
At Davos, he planned to appeal for foreign investment and loans to the southern African nation, but the visit had been expected to be a challenge. His Davos visit a year ago came shortly after he took over from longtime, repressive leader Robert Mugabe, a move cheered by Zimbabweans and the international community.
A year of troubles in which his administration failed to improve the collapsed economy, narrowly won a disputed election and violently put down anti-government protests has caused widespread concern.
Growing frustration over rising inflation, a severe currency crisis and fuel lines that stretch for miles finally snapped after Mnangagwa announced the fuel price increase.
Civic leaders called for Zimbabweans to stay at home for three days in protest. Other people took to the streets. Some looted, in desperation or anger. The military was called in, and with Mnangagwa overseas, the hard-line former military commander and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga was left in charge. A crackdown began.
More than 600 people have been arrested, among them a prominent pastor and activist, Evan Mawarire, who has supported peaceful protests on social media and now faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge. More than 400 people have been denied bail, said his lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa. She said she will apply for bail at the High Court Monday. She said described the case against Mawarire as a “travesty of justice.”
Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government acting like that of former leader Mugabe, who stepped down under military pressure in late 2017 and was succeeded by former protege Mnangagwa.
In what critics have called an attempt to cover up abuses, the government in the past few days has imposed an Internet shutdown across the country. On Monday, the High Court will hear a case challenging the Internet restrictions. Although access to the Internet is back, social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are still blocked.
Jacob Mafume, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, said Mnangagwa’s return “was long overdue, in the first place he was not supposed to travel abroad when the country was burning from the economic and political crisis. ... However, we don’t have confidence that his return will solve anything unless he opens lines of communication. What is needed is political dialogue but Mnangagwa has been avoiding us.”
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference last week lamented the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse, concluding that “our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history.”