Venezuela: New evidence contradicts official version of Rafael Acosta Arévalo’s death

In the new report, Dying before a judge: the arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and death of Rafael Acosta Arévalo, Amnesty International publishes new findings on the case that cast doubt on the official version of events and demonstrate Nicolás Maduro’s government’s deadly policy of repression to silence dissent.

Rafael Acosta Arévalo, a retired captain in the Venezuelan Navy, disappeared in the town of Guatire in the state of Miranda on 21 June 2019. Amnesty International obtained 550 pages of the criminal case file from the investigation into two officials of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) attached to the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), who are accused of involvement in his death.

“Contrary to the outcome of the investigation by the Venezuelan justice system, Rafael Acosta Arévalo did not die in a hospital. He was forcibly disappeared, tortured and died before a judge. Justice has not been done in this case,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The information available shows that Rafael Acosta Arévalo was the victim of enforced disappearance from 21 June to 26 June, the date on which the Venezuelan authorities announced he had been arrested. According to an official document in the case file, the DGCIM officials took him to a hospital on 28 June, but hours later, as he was dying, he appeared before a military court which presented charges against him, despite the fact that he was retired and no longer a member of the Armed Forces.

Contrary to the outcome of the investigation by the Venezuelan justice system, Rafael Acosta Arévalo did not die in a hospital. He was forcibly disappeared, tortured and died before a judge. Justice has not been done in this case
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

 Amnesty International’s investigation found that Rafael Acosta Arévalo died on 28 June 2019 in the room where the arraignment hearing took place, without receiving medical care in the moments before his death. This evidence contradicts the official version of the Venezuelan authorities, who stated publicly that he died at the Vicente Salias Military Hospital after receiving medical treatment.

Amnesty International has received multiple reports of arbitrary detentions and initial periods of incommunicado detention, as well as the existence of clandestine detention centres run by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and the DGCIM. In this case, despite the lack of information on Acosta Arévalo’s whereabouts in the days prior to his death, one of the defendants in the case – who is attached to the DGCIM – declared that the victim was transferred from Guatire to a “basement”. Amnesty International calls for an impartial and independent investigation to be carried out by a civilian authority – not a military one – into the possibility that Rafael Acosta Arévalo was transferred to a clandestine detention centre where he was tortured.

Other findings from the investigation suggest that the officers accused – and subsequently convicted – in the case of Rafael Acosta Arévalo gave contradictory versions of the events. The police records of the investigation do not link the actions of those convicted to the death of the victim and, in addition, the charges brought against the officials suggest that Acosta Arévalo’s death was accidental, ignoring the fact that it was the consequence of multiple and serious injuries that compromised his lungs to the point of causing severe cerebral inflammation.

“In the 550 pages of the case file that Amnesty International has had access to, the word torture is not mentioned even once, despite the fact that there are multiple documents that refer to the more than 50 physical injuries sustained by the victim and his precarious state of health when he appeared before the military court to be charged, seven days after his family reported his disappearance and two days after the authorities admitted that he had been detained,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated in July 2020 that: “Documented cases included severe beatings with boards, suffocation with plastic bags and chemicals, submerging the head of the victim under water, electric shocks to the eyelids, and sexual violence in the form of electric shocks to genitalia. Detainees were also exposed to cold temperatures and/or constant electric light, handcuffed and/or blindfolded for long periods of time, and subjected to death threats against themselves and their relatives.”

Amnesty International maintains that there are hundreds of cases, like that of Rafael Acosta Arévalo, which should be investigated by an independent international mechanism that guarantees justice, truth and reparation for the victims of human rights violations and crimes under international law, given that it is not possible to achieve this through the Venezuelan justice system. It should be noted that the cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial execution and civilians subject to criminal proceedings before military courts in Venezuela are part of a systematic, generalized policy for which individual criminal responsibility at the highest levels of government must be determined.

The case of Rafael Acosta Arévalo highlights the need for international mechanisms to assume leadership in the search for truth, justice and reparation for victims of crimes under international law and human rights violations in Venezuela
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

The Venezuelan justice system has been called into question for lending itself to the criminalization of dissidents and endorsing arbitrary detentions and other crimes under international law and human rights violations. Therefore, today more than ever, it is essential that the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission, which was created by the Human Rights Council and will present its first report this September, is renewed, without precluding the involvement of other international bodies.

“The new evidence shows how little confidence there is in the Venezuelan justice system to deliver truth, justice and reparation for victims of human rights violations. The case of Rafael Acosta Arévalo highlights the need for international mechanisms to assume leadership in the search for truth, justice and reparation for victims of crimes under international law and human rights violations in Venezuela. It is vital that the international community support, strengthen and safeguard the work of the Fact-Finding Mission,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org