After deaths, Venezuelan NGOs call for Prisons Minister's removal
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After deaths, Venezuelan NGOs call for Prisons Minister's removal

Reposted with permission from The Pan-American Post

Following reports that as many as 41 inmates died after allegedly ingesting toxic substances from the infirmary following a protest, the official version of the incident has come under suspicion and the Venezuelan prison minister is coming under pressure to resign.

On November 24, inmates at the Uribana prison in western Lara state initiated a hunger strike to call for improved conditions in the facility. The prison is notorious among inmates for its high level of overcrowding and violence, and was the site of a deadly clash between prisoners and National Guard troops in 2013.

According to the official story, the protest turned violent and some inmates broke out of their cells and into the infirmary ward. There, they allegedly ingested rubbing alcohol and various medications, with 145 becoming intoxicated. The government claims 35 of these inmates have died, while 20 have gone into a coma and the rest are receiving treatment.

The non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) has placed the death toll even higher, saying at least 41 have died and that relatives of the prisoners say they were poisoned. According to the OVP’s Humberto Prado: “The (inmates) were sent bottles of water and food… they haven’t said who sent it, but it was let into the prison and that’s what family members say caused (the intoxications).” The group is calling for independent toxicology tests to be carried out on the deceased, and for an impartial investigation into the circumstances behind the deaths, a demand that has been echoed by international human rights NGOs.

The group is also making more targeted demands. The OVP, alongside human rights NGO PROVEA, is calling for the resignation of Prisons Minister Iris Varela, as El Universal and El Nacional report. In a press statement released yesterday, both groups criticized Varela for a lack of progress on overcrowding, noting that the prison population saw a three percent increase this year. They also pointed out that 1,463 inmates have been killed and 2,259 injured since the government set up the Prison Ministry under Varela in 2011.

When Varela first took office, she was charged with adopting a more “humanist” approach to the country’s penal systems. But as these figures indicate, the country has a long way to go before its notoriously violent, overcrowded and underfunded prisons meaningfully incorporate humanist values.

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