Venezuela faces calls for probe after opposition activist dies in custody

Venezuelan deputies carry the coffin of opposition councillor Fernando Alban, during his wake at the National Assembly in Caracas. (AFP pic)

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 recognising the government’s “responsibility” for Alban’s death, and calling on the United Nations and the Organisation 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 destabilising acts directed from abroad.”

Venezuela accuses its neighbour Colombia of shielding the authors of the alleged assassination attempt.