Convicted criminals are among the special police terrorizing Venezuela

By Sarah Kinosian and Angus Berwick

GUARENAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Since President Nicolas Maduro founded the Special Action Force of Venezuela’s National Police two-and-a-half years ago, the squad has earned a fearsome reputation in poor neighborhoods across Venezuela.

Officers in the force have been accused of torture and summary executions by human rights groups, opposition politicians and ordinary citizens.

Last November, Reuters published an investigation into 20 killings by the force, known as the FAES, in which the official narratives of shootings as acts of self-defense were countered by eyewitness accounts, video evidence, death certificates, autopsy reports and other documentation.

The force has been linked to hundreds of deaths since its creation in 2017.

For all its notoriety, though, the FAES is highly secretive, known for signature dark masks and black uniforms bearing skull insignias but no name tags. Officers typically remain anonymous even after blood is shed.

Now, a court case involving the deaths of two men killed last March by the FAES reveals another little-known fact that Reuters is the first to publicly disclose: Some of the squad’s officers are convicted criminals.

According to hundreds of sealed documents submitted by prosecutors in the case, at least two officers accused of involvement in the killings served prison terms before they joined the FAES.

The documents – which include autopsies, ballistic reports, officer testimony and personnel files – also show that at least three other members of the same FAES precinct who aren’t being prosecuted over the deadly operation have criminal records of their own.

It is both illegal and against national police policy for criminals to belong to the FAES. A 2009 law bars Venezuelans with criminal convictions from working as police officers. FAES guidelines and recruitment documents, reviewed by Reuters, say officers should have no criminal record and be of “good moral character.”

Jose Dominguez, national commissioner of the FAES, in a brief exchange by text message told Reuters that members of the force go through “select processes” and “special training.” He didn’t respond to questions about the criminal records of some FAES officers or a request to discuss Reuters’ findings in person or by telephone.

Venezuela’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and the Information Ministry, responsible for government communications, didn’t return calls and emails by Reuters detailing its findings.

The presence of convicts within the ranks of the FAES sheds new light on a security force widely considered by Venezuelans to be a mechanism of social control for Maduro, whose government is beleaguered by economic decline, widespread hunger and insecurity, and international sanctions and isolation.

Hailed by the president as a new means to fight surging crime and violence, the FAES has become as feared as the criminals it was meant to target, especially in poor districts where hardship fans political instability.

People familiar with the FAES say its leaders are more concerned with projecting force and fear than with rectitude.

“They hire people who aren’t afraid to commit crimes, to enter a home without a warrant and kill,” said Nora Echavez, a former chief prosecutor in Miranda, the state where the homicide court case will be heard. “A criminal does these things easily because they’ve already done them before.”

Reuters couldn’t determine how many ex-convicts are working within FAES ranks nationwide. Personnel records aren’t disclosed by the government. Even the size of the FAES, estimated by fellow police officials to number about 1,500 officers, is held close by the administration.

The mystery surrounding the force is part of its playbook, professionals familiar with it say. “The FAES prefer the anonymity,” said Javier Gorrino, a criminologist and municipal police commissioner in El Hatillo, a district of Caracas, who has interacted with the force. “A mask causes more terror when you don’t know who’s behind it.”

The case in Guarenas, a gritty commuter city 39 kilometers from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is one of few instances in which the identity and backgrounds of FAES officers has come to light.

The two men killed there had law-enforcement backgrounds themselves. One was a municipal policeman from Caracas and the other was a former member of the same local force in the capital. Neither was affiliated with the FAES or any of its officers.

The victims’ ties to law enforcement, people familiar with the case say, are likely the only reason that their deaths have prompted further investigation. The cases of thousands of other Venezuelans who have died at the hands of police, allegedly after resisting arrest, routinely go unexamined.

Alexis Lira, a onetime policeman turned lawyer whose brother was one of the victims in Guarenas, says most families of people killed by cops lack resources and wherewithal to challenge the FAES’ accounts of its operations.

“Most people just have to accept it,” said Lira, who says he now spends much of his days working with prosecutors to seek accountability for his brother’s death. “I don’t.”

His brother was Fernando Lira, a 39-year-old former policeman who had become a graphic designer. Also killed was Lira’s friend, Eligio Duarte, a 41-year-old municipal officer in Caracas. Neither man had a criminal record.

They died March 6, 2019, when a group of FAES officers shot them after a brief car chase. In a statement to police investigators, the FAES supervisor who ran the operation said the men had fired upon his officers first. The police response was “proportionate,” the supervisor said in his statement.

Soon, evidence emerged to the contrary.

Forensic tests showed that neither Lira nor Duarte, who had gone to Guarenas to collect money owed to Lira’s longtime girlfriend, fired a weapon at all. Both men were shot from above, according to autopsy reports, undermining the FAES claim that they were hit in a shootout.

In a court filing that led to charges of homicide against the FAES supervisor and six officers, a state prosecutor wrote: “The events did not happen in the way the police officers claimed.”

“NO PLACE ON ANY POLICE FORCE”

Guarenas is the kind of violent place that could have benefited from a new national crime-fighting force. A community of about 200,000 people in Miranda state, east of the capital, it has crime rates that historically have exceeded the average for Venezuela.

Some gangs, chased out of Caracas in recent years, have moved into hills that surround Guarenas and stretch along the nearby Caribbean coast. Police forces here and elsewhere in Miranda have long been considered corrupt.

After oil prices plunged in 2014, sending Venezuela into recession, Maduro pursued economic policies that deepened the country’s woes. Nearly 5 million people have migrated, about 15% of the country’s populace.

Among the exodus were soldiers, police officers and other public security workers. With wages equal to just a few dollars a month in Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economy, few incentives remained to attract qualified candidates to replace them.

In Miranda, police ranks thinned so quickly that police bosses began lowering standards for recruits, six former officers familiar with the area told Reuters.

Some hires had criminal records. Area police earned even more of a reputation for bribery, extortion, kidnapping and other crimes with tactics like shaking down citizens for their personal belongings or stopping trucks and looting their cargo.

“There were officers who should have had no place on any police force,” said Luis Martinez, a retired senior police official who worked in the area.

Crime soared. The homicide rate, rising across Venezuela, climbed particularly fast in Miranda.

From 100 murders per 100,000 residents earlier in the decade, the rate in the state by 2017 had soared to 153, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a research group based in Caracas. The figure was the second-highest in Venezuela and about 30 times the rate at the time in the United States.

When Maduro launched the FAES in July 2017, his government tasked local police administrators with recruiting officers for the new force. Priorities included loyalty to the ruling Socialist party and a willingness to use aggressive tactics in crime-ridden neighborhoods nationwide, more than a dozen people familiar with those efforts said.

In April 2018, the National Police launched the area FAES unit, administered from Zamora, a nearby municipality. The force set up headquarters behind a local hospital, next to the morgue. A crudely drawn skull graces a whitewashed plaster wall by the entrance.

A former Zamora police operations chief, Oliver Alvarez, took command. He built a unit of 120 officers, many of whom came from local and nearby forces, according to employment contracts for the squad reviewed by Reuters. Alvarez couldn’t be reached for comment.

Among the new FAES officers was Richard Sanchez, one of those charged in the Guarenas shootings. Sanchez, now 34, was indicted in 2004 for robbery and assault, according to court records. Reuters couldn’t determine whether he was convicted of those charges.

In 2014, he was convicted of robbery and served two-and-a-half years in prison, the court documents show. Reuters was unable to reach Sanchez.

His attorney, Miguel Pena, also represents all but one of the six other officers charged in the shootings. Pena told Reuters the accused are detained at a FAES barracks in Caracas, but are still officially part of the force.

He confirmed Sanchez’s prior conviction, but said his clients in this case acted in self-defense. “I’m not saying they’re angels,” Pena told Reuters in an interview. “But there was a shootout and they were defending themselves.”

Another recruit for the local FAES was Jose Oliveros, an officer who had risen through police ranks in Miranda despite a prior conviction as an accessory to murder. According to court records, Oliveros, now 37, had accompanied two other men when one of them shot a man to death after a 2009 altercation.

After serving one year of a five-year prison sentence, Oliveros was named deputy director of a small police force near Guarenas in 2017, government documents announcing his appointment to the post show. He became chief of that precinct in 2018 and then chief of another last year, even after joining the ranks of the FAES.

Oliveros, reached by telephone, said he would seek permission from superiors to speak with Reuters. He didn’t respond to further efforts to reach him. Julio Ortega, Oliveros’ attorney, declined to speak with Reuters for this story.

“WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”

The Guarenas shootings followed a failed foreign currency transaction, according to transcripts of testimony by those involved to prosecutors and police investigators. It isn’t clear why FAES officers got involved or why the episode turned violent.

Early on March 2, Maria Gonzalez received a text message at the Caracas apartment she shared with Lira, the former police officer. The couple had been together for 10 years and ran a t-shirt printing business.

The text offered a basic transaction that many Venezuelans pursue to keep their income from being eroded by hyperinflation. By converting their local currency into dollars, they preserve the long-term value of their earnings.

Jhonathan Coraspe, a former colleague of Gonzalez from Guarenas, told Gonzalez a friend had $500 in U.S. currency he wanted to exchange for bolivars, Venezuela’s currency. In the texts, reviewed by Reuters and corroborated by Gonzalez in interviews, she accepted the transaction.

That same day, she transferred 1.68 million bolivars, roughly the equivalent value to $500 dollars at the time, to an account Coraspe said belonged to the friend, Ruben Alarcon. Gonzalez then drove the half hour to Guarenas to collect the dollars.

Reuters was unable to reach Coraspe. After the shootings, he testified to police investigators and prosecutors but has since gone into hiding, according to attorneys involved in the case. Alarcon, the friend, didn’t return phone calls or texts from Reuters to discuss the incident.

In Guarenas, Alarcon didn’t appear at a pharmacy where Coraspe said he would meet Gonzalez to hand over the dollars. “I trusted you,” she wrote Coraspe. “I feel truly terrible,” Coraspe replied, and agreed to see her later.

That evening, Coraspe drove to Gonzalez’s Caracas apartment.

He promised to secure the $500.

Lira, the former police officer, and Duarte, the municipal police officer and friend who would also be shot when the transaction unraveled, were at the apartment, according to testimony by Coraspe and Gonzalez.

Coraspe told investigators the two men forced him to leave his car as collateral in case he never came up with the $500. Gonzalez said Coraspe volunteered the silver 1997 Honda Civic himself.

Neither Duarte nor Lira had a criminal record, according to a document Caracas police sent to prosecutors for the case. Five former colleagues told Reuters both men had been upstanding citizens and policemen.

On the morning of March 4, Coraspe called Hugo Martinez, a FAES officer he knew from his neighborhood, according to Coraspe’s testimony to prosecutors. He told Martinez that two men had stolen his car and were trying to extort $500 from him.

A day later, Martinez told Coraspe to tell Gonzalez he had the $500 but no way to get to Caracas, Coraspe testified. Coraspe texted Gonzalez and said he could meet in Guarenas the following day.

The next morning, March 6, Gonzalez sent Lira, who left with Duarte to retrieve the money, Gonzalez told investigators. In text messages, Coraspe testified, Lira agreed to meet him at a gas station.

With Lira bound for Guarenas, Martinez called his FAES supervisor, Alexander Uzcategui, and told him about the alleged extortion, transcripts of testimony by Uzcategui show. Martinez told Uzcategui that Coraspe would soon meet the two men from Caracas at the gas station. The supervisor said they and a small group of FAES colleagues would “await” them there.

Reuters was unable to reach Martinez, Uzcategui or any of the other officers charged in the operation.

At 1 p.m., Coraspe waited at the gas station. Lira and Duarte arrived in a blue Toyota Hilux pickup. Nearby, in two vehicles, FAES officers watched.

According to Uzcategui’s testimony to police investigators, the men in the pickup pulled a gun and forced Coraspe into their vehicle “under the threat of death.” They sped off, he said. His squad gave chase.

Coraspe, in his own comments to investigators, said he entered the truck voluntarily. Neither Duarte nor Lira brandished a weapon, he said. Unprompted, FAES officers shot at the moving Toyota, he added.

Frightened, Coraspe pulled the handbrake. The pickup crashed into the roadside. “We’re all going to die,” Coraspe recalled telling the other men.

According to the transcript of his testimony, Coraspe emerged from the crash, ran toward a FAES vehicle and got in. Officers, meanwhile, approached the pickup.

Duarte and Lira, Coraspe testified, exited with their hands up. They followed FAES orders to lie down. With the men prone, Coraspe said, he could no longer see them.

He heard gunshots.

Five minutes later, FAES officers pulled Coraspe from their car and ordered him to lie on the ground, he testified. He saw Lira and Duarte “lying motionless,” Coraspe told prosecutors.

Uzcategui told investigators that Lira and Duarte had fired upon his squad. His officers fired back, shooting both. After the gunfight, he said, officers took the men to a hospital, where a doctor declared them dead.

“WHAT REALLY HAPPENED”

At 2.30 p.m., Marlon Brito, a detective with the Corps for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation received an order from supervisors to go to the morgue, according to his written report for the case. The corps, known as the CICPC, conducts forensic work for the National Police.

Reuters was unable to reach Brito for comment.

At the morgue, next to the hospital, Brito saw two bodies.

With a national identity card that had been on Duarte, Brito identified the Caracas officer’s corpse. Lira’s corpse would later be identified by the English words “FREEDOM” and “History” tattooed on his left forearm.

Duarte suffered two bullet wounds to the chest, Brito wrote in his report. Lira had two chest wounds and a gunshot to the stomach. Autopsies confirmed the wounds Brito reported.

From the morgue, Brito drove to the site of the crash and shootings. Uzcategui, the supervisor, stood guard with about 15 other FAES officers, according to Brito’s report.

The Hilux was riddled with bullets, Brito wrote. Photos of the scene reviewed by Reuters also show the pierced pickup. Spent shells littered the area and two pistols lay on the ground.

Officers told Brito the guns belonged to suspects who had fired upon them.

Within days, autopsy and forensic reports contradicted the FAES account.

Autopsy results, prepared by a separate government agency, on March 19 concluded that both men had been shot from above. The reports, reviewed by Reuters and also contained in the court documents, say bullets pierced Duarte “from above down.” Lira was shot “from above downward.”

Duarte Nuno Vieira, a professor of forensic medicine and medical law at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, reviewed the autopsy results at Reuters’ request. “The autopsy reports,” he said, “are more in line with a context of summary execution.”

In its forensics report, the CICPC concluded that Lira and Duarte’s hands had no trace of antimony, barium or lead, telltale chemicals expelled by most guns.

A forensics specialist in Spain, who reviewed the findings for Reuters, said the report was conclusive. “They didn’t fire a single shot,” said Francisco Gallego, director of the Technical Institute of Ballistic Studies in Madrid.

The CICPC report said that forensic evidence and testimony put the seven officers charged at the scene.

Uzcategui, the supervisor, fired the 9 mm pistol rounds that killed Duarte, the report said. The specificity was possible because the bullets, traced by forensics to Uzcategui’s gun, remained in Duarte’s body, according to the autopsy.

Although the rounds that killed Lira left through exit wounds, ballistics in the report indicated that three of the six other officers charged had fired weapons.

Meyfer Diaz, a 23-year-old recruit who joined the force just two months before the shootings, fired a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. A month before the operation, Diaz posted a Facebook photo of himself in FAES gear. “Suck it,” he wrote, “nothing gets to me.”

Sanchez, the officer who served prison time for robbery, fired his Tanfoglio pistol four times. Investigators traced fourteen other rounds at the scene to Oliveros, the officer who served time as an accomplice to murder.

Ballistic reports and a FAES document contained in the prosecutors’ case file, both reviewed by Reuters, show the rounds came from a Heckler & Koch MP5 assigned to Oliveros. At a July hearing, Ortega, Oliveros’ lawyer, argued that his client didn’t have the gun on the day of the killings.

In his testimony to prosecutors, Coraspe, whose phone call set off the episode, said FAES officers after the shootings told him to tell investigators “it was a confrontation.” Instead, he said, “I told the officers what really happened.”

The defendants are scheduled to appear in court in March; the trial is expected to take months. Attorneys leading the prosecution for the state didn’t respond to requests from Reuters to discuss the case.

Alexis Lira, the graphic designer’s brother, visits the courthouse and prosecutors weekly to make sure the case is progressing.

Gonzalez, Fernando Lira’s girlfriend and intended beneficiary of the missing $500, after Lira’s death gradually grew weaker from a longstanding struggle with pulmonary hypertension. Reuters interviewed her multiple times in late 2019.

On January 3, Gonzalez died of heart failure.

“She was our companion in this battle,” said Jeanette Padron, a physician, friend and the longtime partner of Duarte, the other man killed. “Fernando’s death broke her down.”

(Editing by Paulo Prada.)

China tortured me over Hong Kong, says former British consulate employee

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – A former employee of Britain’s consulate in Hong Kong said Chinese secret police beat him, deprived him of sleep and shackled him in an attempt to force him to give information about activists leading pro-democracy protests.

Hong Kong, which was returned to China by Britain in 1997, has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations, the biggest political crisis for Beijing since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who worked for the British government for almost two years, said he was tortured while detained for 15 days as he returned from a trip to mainland China in August.

“I was hung (handcuffed and shackled) on a steep X-Cross doing a spread-eagled pose for hours after hours,” Cheng said in a post on Facebook.

“Sometimes, they ordered me to do the ‘stress tests’, which includes extreme strength exercise such as ‘squat’ and ‘chair pose’ for countless hours. They beat me every time I failed to do so using something like sharpened batons.”

Britain said Cheng’s treatment amounted to torture and summoned China’s ambassador to express outrage. China did not immediately comment on Cheng. Reuters was unable to verify his account.

In an 8,000 word description of his experiences, Cheng relates a nightmare of repeated physical abuse, threats and questioning about Britain’s alleged meddling in the protests.

At one point in the interrogation by secret police, he was given a bizarre lecture about astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus whose unpopularity in the 16th Century was used to justify the argument that China was not ready for democracy.

Cheng was accused of being a British spy and questioned at length about protest leaders and their links to the London School of Economics. Eventually, it was proposed, he should work for the Chinese “motherland”.

“I was suspected of being a mastermind and British proxy to incite and organise the protests in Hong Kong,” Cheng said.

‘TORTURE’

Britain said Cheng had been treated disgracefully.

“Simon Cheng was a valued member of our team. We were shocked and appalled by the mistreatment he suffered while in Chinese detention, which amounts to torture,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

“I summoned the Chinese Ambassador to express our outrage at the brutal and disgraceful treatment of Simon in violation of China’s international obligations,” Raab said.

Cheng, who said he supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, said he would not seek judicial redress as he had no faith in the Chinese legal system.

Hong Kong’s justice secretary said she had no opinion on the torture accusation and Cheng should report the matter to the Chinese authorities.

“I prefer to hold my opinion until I have the opportunity to collect and analyse any information that I might have,” said Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng, who shares the same surname as the former consulate employee.

Hong Kong was handed over to China by the colony’s former ruler Britain in 1997 but enjoys a degree of autonomy under the so-called “one country, two systems” formula.

China’s ambassador to London on Monday accused foreign countries including the United States and Britain of interfering in Chinese internal affairs through their reactions to the violent clashes taking place in Hong Kong.

Ambassador Liu Xiaoming said Western countries were meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Cheng was forced to give a written confession for betraying the motherland, a statement of apology and a confession for “soliciting prostitution”. He was instructed to sing the Chinese national anthem and recorded doing so.

He was told that if he spoke about his experiences he would be spirited out of Hong Kong back to mainland China.

“I won’t give up the fight for human rights, peace, freedom and democracy for the rest of my life, no matter the danger, discrimination and retaliation I will face, and no matter how my reputation will be stained, and no matter whether my future would be blacklisted, labelled, and ruined,” Cheng said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood)

‘Used and dehumanized’: Dozens of boys found chained in Nigeria

People with chained legs are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Garba Muhammad and Bosun Yakusak

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 300 boys and men, some as young as five and many in chains and bearing scars from beatings, have been rescued in a raid on a building that purported to be an Islamic school in northern Nigeria, police said on Friday.

Most of the freed captives seen by a Reuters reporter in the city of Kaduna were children, aged up to their late teens. Some shuffled with their ankles manacled and others were chained by their legs to large metal wheels to prevent escape.

One boy, held by the hand by a police officer as he walked unsteadily, had sores visible on his back that appeared consistent with injuries inflicted by a whip.

Some children had been brought from neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana, police said, while local media reports said others had been left by their parents in what they believed to be an Islamic school or rehabilitation center.

“This place is neither a rehab or an Islamic school because you can see it for yourselves. The children gathered here are from all over the country… some of them where even chained,” Kaduna state’s police commissioner, Ali Janga, told reporters.

“They were used, dehumanized, you can see it yourself.”

Kaduna police spokesman Yakubu Sabo said seven people who said they were teachers at the school had been arrested in Thursday’s raid.

People are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

People are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

“The state government is currently providing food to the children who are between the ages of five and above,” he said.

It was not clear how long the captives had been held there.

Reports carried by local media said the captives had been tortured, starved and sexually abused. Reuters was not immediately able to confirm those details.

The children have been moved to a temporary camp at a stadium in Kaduna, and would later be moved to another camp in a suburb of the city while attempts are made to find their parents, police said.

Some parents who had already been contacted went to the scene to retrieve their children.

“We did not know that they will be put to this kind of harsh condition,” one parent told Reuters.

SCHOOL SHUTDOWNS?

Islamic schools, known as Almajiris, are common across the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria – a country that is roughly evenly split between followers of Christianity and Islam.

Parents in northern Nigeria, the poorest part of a country in which most people live on less than $2 a day, often opt to leave their children to board at the schools.

Such schools have for years been dogged by allegations of abuse and accusations that some children have been forced to beg on the streets of cities in the north.

Earlier this year, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Muslim, said it planned to eventually ban the schools, but would not do so immediately.

“Any necessary ban on Almajiri would follow due process and consultation with relevant authorities,” said Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu in a statement issued in June.

“The federal government wants a situation where every child of primary school age is in school rather than begging on the streets during school hours,” the statement said.

A presidency spokesman did not immediately respond to calls and text messages seeking comment on the raid in Kaduna and whether it would alter the government’s approach to such schools.

Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the Nigerian human rights organization the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), said around 10 million children across the north of the country are educated at Islamic schools.

“Those responsible for abuse, if found guilty, should be held accountable but these schools should continue because shutting them down would deprive so many students of an education,” he said.

Akintola said Islamic schools needed funding to train teachers and improve the buildings.

(Reporting by Garba Muhammad and Bosun Yakusak; Additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Killings, torture still going on in Venezuela: U.N. rights chief

FILE PHOTO - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights chief said on Monday that extrajudicial killings appeared to be continuing in Venezuela and the Special Action Forces (FAES) presumed to be responsible had received support from the highest levels of government.

Michelle Bachelet told the U.N. Human Rights Council that alongside possible executions, her office had documented cases of torture of soldiers and others arbitrarily held and urged the government of President Nicolas Maduro to punish perpetrators.

Bachelet who issued a report in early July detailing witness accounts of death squads run by the FAES, said non-governmental organization Monitor de Victimas (Victims’ Monitor) had found 57 new presumed executions by FAES members in Caracas that month.

The government called her earlier report a “selective and openly partial vision” that ignored official information and relied on biased witnesses.

She has also expressed concern about U.S. sanctions aimed at pressuring Maduro to step down; on Monday she said they were among factors fuelling a mass exodus from the country, which is reeling from hyperinflation and a collapsing economy.

Bachelet said even though the sanctions envisaged exceptions for humanitarian assistance, over-caution by the financial sector, lower public revenues and a decrease in oil production were having a serious impact.

“All of this is contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian situation and the exodus of Venezuelans from the country,” noting that 4.3 million refugees and migrants had already fled the turmoil, most since the end of 2015.

Washington has urged the European Union to join the sanctions, arguing that they would help advance negotiations on a handover of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido, who assumed a rival interim presidency in January.

Guaido, who said Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate, has the support of most Western nations as well as Washington. Maduro calls him a U.S. puppet.

Bachelet called for more details from Venezuela’s Public Ministry on what she said it had told her were the convictions of 104 members of the security forces for human rights violations between August 2017 and May 2019.

Despite her recommendations to dissolve the FAES and prevent extrajudicial executions, this was not being done, she said: “On the contrary, the FAES have received support from the highest level of Government.”.

Some Latin American countries and activists are urging the Geneva forum, whose 47 members include Venezuela, to establish a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Venezuela at the three-week session.

Bachelet, who visited Venezuela in June, said 83 opposition members were freed around that time, but the cases of 27 other detainees were still pending and Judge Lourdes Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, conditionally released in early July, had not yet received unconditional freedom.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Former inmate tours Ethiopian torture center after it opens to the public

Visitors use their phone torches inside Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Blogger Befekadu Hailu’s eyes filled with tears as he stood on the spot where he had watched a guard attack a friend in Maekelawi detention center, a name long synonymous in Ethiopia with torture and fear.

Befekadu returned to visit the former police station on Friday as a tourist, not an inmate, after the government opened the building to the public for three days as part of its push towards new democratic freedoms.

“We have to take a lesson from this,” Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye said at a ceremony at the site. “Human rights violations which took place here should not be repeated.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed the notorious detention and interrogation center in Addis Ababa last year after he took office pledging an end to “state terrorism”.

Befekadu, 39, was imprisoned there for 84 days without charge in 2014. On Friday morning, he took Reuters to see the damp, dark interrogation rooms.

Prisoners called the frigid underground cells where he was detained “Siberia”.

The center was used by successive rulers, including military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which wrested power from him in 1991.

BEATINGS

Befekadu and other detainees had poked holes in the plaster that filled the metal bars on their cell door. It was meant to stop them from seeing outside.

He said that one day, a policeman noticed him peering out and demanded to know who made the holes. The officer began kicking Befekadu’s fellow prisoner Atnaf.

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

“My friend was beaten here and I couldn’t defend him,” he said, his voice cracking. He searched on Friday for graffiti that prisoners had scrawled, but the wall under his fingers was slick with fresh yellow paint.

In a 2013 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented torture at Maekelawi, often used to extract confessions from suspected political opponents.

Guards beat prisoners with gun butts and electric wires and handcuffed victims’ wrists to the ceiling.

That is forbidden now, said Supreme Court president Meaza Ashenafi, a lawyer and women’s rights activist appointed by Abiy last year. The country was changing “from a condition where human rights were violated to a condition where they are now respected”, she said during her visit to the cells on Friday.

Some senior officials implicated in rights abuses have been arrested. The former head of national intelligence has been charged with murder and torture in absentia. Former political prisoners now head the election board and the government-run national human rights commission.

But Laetitia Bader, a senior Human Rights Watch Africa researcher, said more needs to be done to heal past wounds. Most trials have not begun and a reconciliation commission set up in December has an unclear mandate, Bader said.

“The government hasn’t presented a clear roadmap for how it plans to deal with the country’s abusive past,” she said.

Activists continue to be detained, said prominent journalist Eskinder Nega, who was jailed repeatedly on terrorism charges prior to Abiy’s appointment.

Five of his colleagues have been held without charge since June under the anti-terrorism law, he said. The prime minister is new, but the government is still the same ruling coalition, he said.

“This is a classic pretext to crackdown on dissent,” he said. “None of the authoritarian structures have been overhauled.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Frances Kerry)

On Venezuelan independence day, Maduro calls for dialogue as Guaido slams ‘dictatorship’

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, is seen at Venezuela's National Assembly to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bitterly divided political factions held competing commemorations of the country’s independence day on Friday, with President Nicolas Maduro calling for dialogue and opposition leader Juan Guaido decrying alleged human rights violations by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Speaking to a gathering of top military officials, Maduro reiterated his support for a negotiation process mediated by Norway between his socialist government and Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly who argues Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

“There is room for all of us within Venezuela,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas, before calling for military exercises on July 24 to defend the South American country’s “seas, rivers and borders.”

“We must all give up something in order to reach an agreement,” he said.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, calling Maduro a usurper. He has been recognized as the rightful head of state by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

But Maduro retains the recognition of Cuba, Russia and China, and remains in control of state functions and the armed forces. He calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido held a separate independence day event, calling on supporters to march toward the headquarters of the military counterintelligence directorate, or DGCIM, where navy captain Rafael Acosta died last month after opposition leaders and family members said he was tortured in custody.

The march is the first major opposition gathering since a botched Guaido-led military uprising on April 30 and follow-up protests on May 1. The government responded to the failed attempt to oust Maduro with a crackdown on Guaido-aligned lawmakers and military members suspected of involvement.

This week, the United Nations human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, published a report detailing alleged extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances and other rights violations by Venezuelan security forces in recent years.

“There is no longer any valid euphemism to characterize this regime, other than dictatorship,” Guaido told reporters earlier on Friday. “The systematic violation of human rights, the repression, the torture… it is clearly identified in the (UN)report.”

The Venezuelan government has called the report “selective” and said the UN sources lacked objectivity.

A new round of Norway-mediated talks expected for this week was called off after Acosta’s death. Opposition leaders frequently argue that Maduro’s government seeks to use dialogue to distract from its continued human rights violations.

In an apparent referral to Acosta before Maduro spoke, Commander Remigio Ceballos said the armed forces “regretted the events related to the loss of the retired naval official.” Without naming Acosta, he accused him of conspiring against the Venezuelan state, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of his death.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

China condemns violent Hong Kong protests as ‘undisguised challenge’ to its rule

A worker walks past post-it notes scribbled with messages, left behind by protesters on the walls of the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building, in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Anne Marie Roantree

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China on Tuesday condemned violent protests in Hong Kong as an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which the city is ruled, hours after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who stormed and trashed the legislature.

A representative of China’s Hong Kong affairs office denounced the demonstrators, who are furious about proposed legislation allowing extraditions to China, and said Beijing supports holding criminals responsible, state media said.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary.

Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the handover.

Beijing denies interfering, but for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.

“Seriously violating the law, the act tramples the rule of law in Hong Kong, undermines social order and the fundamental interests of Hong Kong, and is an undisguised challenge to the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’, Xinhua news agency quoted a Hong Kong affairs office spokesman as saying. “We strongly condemn this act.”

Debris including umbrellas, hard hats and water bottles was among the few signs left of the mayhem that had engulfed parts of the city on Monday and overnight after protesters stormed and ransacked the Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

Workers clean up outside the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Workers clean up outside the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Police cleared roads near the heart of the financial center, paving the way for business to return to normal.

However, government offices, where protesters smashed computers and spray-painted “anti-extradition” and slurs against the police and government on chamber walls, were closed.

The government’s executive council meeting was due to be held in Government House, officials said, while the legislature would remain closed for the next two weeks.

Millions of people have taken to the streets in the past few weeks to protest against the now-suspended extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

Lawyers and rights groups say China’s justice system is marked by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detention. China has been angered by Western criticism of the bill.

The bill triggered a backlash against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, taking in the business, diplomatic and legal communities that fear corrosion of the legal autonomy of Hong Kong and the difficulty of guaranteeing a fair trial in China.

She has suspended the bill and said it would lapse next year, but protesters want it scrapped altogether and have pressed her to step down.

Lam, Hong Kong’s self-styled Iron Lady, has created a fresh crisis for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is already grappling with a trade war with Washington, a faltering economy and tension in the South China Sea.

Regina Ip, chairwoman of Hong Kong’s pro-China New People’s Party, said the protests had brought shame on Hong Kong.

“In the long term, (this) will impact Hong Kong’s business environment. I believe various negative consequences of damages in our economy and prosperity will soon emerge.”

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also condemned the violence.

“This is an insult to LegCo (Legislative Council), an insult to Hong Kong rule of law,” she said.

Chinese censors have worked hard to erase or block news of the Hong Kong protests, wary that any large public rallies could inspire protests on the mainland.

Screens went black on the BBC and CNN when they showed related reports in mainland China, as has happened during previous Hong Kong protests. Foreign news channels are only available in luxury hotels and a handful of high-end apartment complexes in China.

State news agency Xinhua wrote an upbeat Chinese-language report about a government-arranged concert in Hong Kong to celebrate the handover anniversary, complete with descriptions of the audience singing the national anthem and how the performers showed their “ardent love of the motherland”.

A state newspaper in China called for “zero tolerance” after the violence in Hong Kong.

“Out of blind arrogance and rage, protesters showed a complete disregard for law and order,” the Global Times, published by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said in an editorial.

The protests generated lively discussion on Chinese social media.

“Hong Kong shows that China cannot follow a Western political system. It’s too easy to be manipulated and to bring chaos,” wrote one user of the Twitter-like Weibo.

Another wrote, “When the children don’t listen, their mothers should give them a smacked bottom.”

Britain warned China that there would be serious consequences if the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong was not honored. China has dismissed Britain’s concerns, saying Hong Kong was none of its business.

The U.N. human rights office in Geneva called on all sides to avoid violence.

“We ask protesters to demonstrate and express their grievances in a peaceful manner,” spokeswoman Marta Hurtado

said in an email. “We urge HK authorities to immediately open a proper channel for dialogue and for the police and other members of the security forces to manage demonstrations according to international human rights norms and standards.”

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin in HONG KONG, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, the Shanghai newsroom, Michael Holden and Alistair Smout in LONDON and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

U.N. official urges China not to deport North Korean escapees, who could face torture

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – China should not repatriate the increasing number of North Korean escapees it has arrested in recent months, because severe punishment faces those sent home, a U.N. human rights investigator said on Friday.

At least 30, if not more, North Korean escapees have been rounded up in raids across China since mid-April, families and activist groups told Reuters this month, in what activists have called a “severe” crackdown.

At the time, the Chinese foreign ministry told Reuters it was not aware of any arrests. Activists and lawyers say there is no sign yet that the North Koreans have been deported.

“Information suggests China may have recently strengthened the search for North Korean escapees in collaboration with the government of North Korea,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea.

“Repatriated North Koreans are at great risk of serious human rights violations, including torture,” Quintana told reporters in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

“The government of North Korea criminalizes those who cross the border irregularly.”

Quintana said he had raised concerns over the fate of North Korean escapees detained in China, and discussed the issue with South Korean officials during his trip to Seoul.

Escapees may face particularly severe punishment, including being sent to political prison camps, if they intended to defect to South Korea or if they were helped by Christian groups, he said.

Quintana displayed an old lock that he had been given by a boy who escaped from North Korea.

“He gave me this lock as a symbol of the need to open up the country,” Quintana said.

The United Nations has previously raised concern over North Korea’s continued use of political prison camps, and Quintana said people “live in fear of being sent to them”.

The North Korean government plays a role in exacerbating the country’s food shortages, he added.

North Korean officials have adopted “failing economic and agricultural policies”, including central rationing systems plagued by shortcomings and discriminatory allocation, he said.

Climate conditions, infertile land, and the negative impact of sanctions had contributed to food insecurity, Quintana said.

“At the same time the government is not developing conditions where people can securely access food through markets without being criminalized.”

He said he supported the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea, which was a joint economic project with South Korea that has been shut down for several years.

The jobs provided to North Koreans at the factories there improved employees’ lives and as a human rights matter, the project should be reopened, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong braces for new mass protests against planned extraditions to China

Hong Kong braced for strikes, transport go-slows and another mass demonstration in protest against a proposed extradition law that would allow people to be sent to China for trial, as the Chinese-ruled city's leader vowed defiance.

By Clare Jim and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong braced for strikes, transport go-slows and another mass demonstration in protest against a proposed extradition law that would allow people to be sent to China for trial, as the Chinese-ruled city’s leader vowed defiance.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would push ahead with the bill despite deep concerns across vast swaths of the Asian financial hub that triggered its biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

In a rare move, prominent business leaders warned that pushing through the extradition law could undermine investor confidence in Hong Kong and erode its competitive advantages.

The extradition bill, which has generated unusually broad opposition at home and abroad, is due for a second round of debate on Wednesday in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council. The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.

An online petition has called for 50,000 people to surround the legislature building at 10 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Tuesday and remain until Wednesday.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China under a “one-country, two-systems” formula, with guarantees that its autonomy and freedoms, including an independent justice system, would be protected.

But many accuse China of extensive meddling, denying democratic reforms, interfering with local elections and the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Sunday’s protests plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

She warned against any “radical actions”, following clashes in the early hours of Monday between some protesters and police after Sunday’s otherwise peaceful march.

Police erected metal barriers to secure the council building as a small number of protesters started to gather on Tuesday evening despite torrential rain and thunderstorm warnings. Police conducted random ID checks at train stations.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo urged people to join the rally and encouraged businesses to strike “for a day, or two, or probably for one whole week”.

Nearly 2,000 mostly small retail shops, including restaurants, grocery, book and coffee shops, have announced plans to strike, according to an online survey, a rare move in the staunchly capitalist economy.

Eaton HK Hotel, which is owned by Langham Hospitality Investments and operated by Great Eagle Holdings, said it respected workers’ “political stances” and would allow them to rally.

The student union of several higher education institutions and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union urged people to strike on Wednesday. Nearly 4,000 teachers said they would rally.

Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.

“When the fugitive extradition bill is passed, Hong Kong will become a ‘useless Hong Kong'” said Jimmy Sham, convenor of Civil Human Rights Front. “We will be deep in a place where foreign investors are afraid to invest and tourists are afraid to go. Once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ (it) will become nothing.”

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill “hurriedly” and urged all Christians to pray for the former colony.

A staff union affiliated to a pro-democracy labor group under the New World First Bus Company called on its members to drive at the speed of 20-25 kmh (12-15 mph) to show their opposition to the proposed law.

A Facebook post called on people to enjoy a picnic next to government offices on Wednesday, describing the area as “among the best picnic sites”. The post has attracted close to 10,000 responses from people promising to attend.

Beijing-based consultancy Gavecal said some bankers in Hong Kong were reporting that many mainland clients were shifting their accounts to Singapore, fearing they could come under scrutiny in the financial hub.

“MISSTEPS COULD BE COSTLY”

Many residents of the financial center, both expatriate and local, are increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s tightening grip over the city.

China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Hong Kong matters are purely a Chinese internal affair and China demands the United States stops interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The comments came after Washington said on Monday it was gravely concerned about the proposed law and warned that such a move could jeopardize the special status Washington affords Hong Kong.

Prominent business figures urged the government to tread cautiously to protect Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

“The integrity and independence of (Hong Kong’s) legal system are absolutely central to Hong Kong’s future,” said Fred Hu, founder and chairman of China-based private equity firm, Primavera Capital Group.

Activist investor David Webb, in a post on Lam’s Facebook page, urged her to send the bill to the Law Reform Commission for further study.

“If you press ahead and bulldoze the bill through LegCo, then you will probably get the legislation passed, but at huge political cost and damage to the international credibility of HK for due process when reforming its legislation,” Webb said.

(Additional reporting by Kane Wu, James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam and Vimvam Tong; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Inmates revolt at Venezuela detention center, Utah man pleads for help

Relatives of inmates react outside a detention center of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), where a riot occurred, according to relatives, in Caracas, Venezuela May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Luc Cohen and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Inmates at a crowded Caracas detention center revolted on Wednesday, with jailed opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a Mormon missionary from Utah begging for freedom and medical attention in postings on social media.

There was no official information on the incident, but in videos posted on social media men identifying themselves as prisoners said they had taken over the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, known as the Helicoide, where hundreds of people are held.

“This has been taken over peacefully by all the political prisoners and all the prisoners who are abducted here, who are tortured daily,” a man said in one of the videos. He said tear gas and weapons had been fired at detainees but they were holding out to demand freedom.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the origin of the videos or circumstances under which they were made.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab tweeted, “In the face of the events that happened today in the Sebin headquarters at the Helicoide, we sent a commission of the prosecutor’s office to the facility. That delegation spoke to a representative of the prisoners to respond to their requests.”

In a midafternoon Facebook post, Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and missionary whose family has said he was framed on weapons charges while in Venezuela for his wedding, said, “Helicoide the prison where I am at has fallen the guards are here and people are trying to break in my room and kill me. WHAT DO WE DO?”

In a video seen on Twitter late on Wednesday Holt said, “I’m here to show you that I am not being kidnapped. The only people who are kidnapping me is the government of Venezuela. We need the people to help us.” He was flanked by three other men.

He said all four of them were being detained without trial and that some detainees were being denied medical attention.

His mother Laurie Holt told Reuters that she did not know the sequence of the videos and was unable to confirm Holt’s current situation.

Activists said the incident had been precipitated by the beating of activist Gregory Sanabria from the state of Tachira. He appeared with a bruised face in pictures on social media.

Rights groups and Maduro opponents have said several hundred political prisoners have been unfairly jailed. Maduro has said all jailed activists were being held on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The U.S. embassy in Caracas said it was “very worried” about the situation at the Helicoide.

“Joshua Holt and other U.S. citizens are in danger. The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their security and we will hold them responsible if anything happens to them,” the embassy tweeted in Spanish.

Todd Robinson, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, went to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry for information, the embassy added. “No response from the government.”

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Toni Reinhold)