Two Venezuelan student protesters awaiting trial were allegedly tortured and forced into making false confessions, according to a human rights organization.
Marco Aurelio Coello and Christian Holdack were detained for their participation in a rally on Feb. 12 in Caracas, the first rally in what would lead to months of protests against the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.
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Coello’s defense attorney and family members told the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) that Bolivarian National Police agents used brutal methods to force the 18 year old to confess to crimes he did not commit.
Coello was allegedly stripped down, wrapped in a rubber mat, and beaten for hours with blunt objects, such as fire extinguishers and golf clubs. He also received electric shocks and was threatened with execution numerous times, either by a gun to his head or being doused with gasoline and having lighters held over him, according to HRF.
Holdack was reportedly subjected to similar methods of torture.
The two imprisoned students are currently attending preliminary hearings as they await trial along with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been detained at a military facility. All three face years in prison on charges of incitement to commit a crime, conspiracy, arson, and damages to public property related to the February demonstration. The opposition says the charges are politically motivated.
HRF said the prosecution and two courts assigned to the case have ignored evidence that Coello and Holdack were not involved in the burning of police cars and damage to a government office building. The largely peaceful rally in February ended in violence with at least three deaths and dozens of injuries.
Garry Kasparov, HRF chairman, said in a statement that "the use of torture and other systematic violations of the rights of Venezuelan students show the world the true colors of the Bolivarian ‘revolution,’" the government’s term for the movement started by former President Hugo Chavez.
"The Venezuelan government knows that if they let these innocent young men go, they would also have to let Leopoldo Lopez go, so they prefer to keep them in prison and torture them to extract false confessions," he said. "This must stop. The judge must release these students immediately in light of the complete lack of evidence against them."
An HRF spokesperson confirmed that the preliminary hearings for the case are ongoing.
Coello is reportedly suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder after the episodes of arrest and torture, according to psychiatric evaluations.
A report released last month by Human Rights Watch highlighted the detentions of Coello and Holdack along with more than 150 documented abuses of detainees and at least 10 cases of torture.
More than 40 people have died in protests against Maduro’s rule and what demonstrators say is his inability to tackle rampant crime, inflation, and shortages of basic goods. The opposition blames a crackdown by state security forces and pro-government gangs for the majority of deaths.
The moderate opposition coalition broke off talks with the government last month after they said Maduro refused to agree to any of its demands, including forming an independent truth commission to investigate abuses and releasing all jailed protesters.
A bill directing President Barack Obama to impose sanctions against human rights abusers in Venezuela, including U.S. visa and asset bans, passed the House in late May, and similar legislation has been proposed in the Senate. The State Department has so far held off on applying sanctions and said the timing is not yet right.
A State Department spokesperson said "we are concerned about allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela."
"The Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect its citizens’ fundamental freedoms and, above all, their safety," the spokesperson said. "We have continually called for an end to the violence and promoted honest dialogue that addresses the Venezuelan people’s legitimate grievances."