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Charges Surface of Rights Abuses During Venezuelan Coup Attempt

January 4, 1993

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ As rebel and loyal soldiers battled for control of Venezuela during the November coup attempt, Felipe Arteaga went to a neighborhood grocery to buy flour.

The next day, Arteaga’s family found the 29-year-old motorcycle messenger’s body in a nearby hospital. Arteaga had taken a bullet in each leg and two in the chest.

Witnesses told the family Arteaga and other customers were joking with the grocery owner when a bystander feared trouble and called police. Fifteen policemen arrived and began shooting, witnesses said.

Arteaga, bullet wounds in each leg, was carried off in a police car.

The family heard nothing more.

″It’s unjust,″ Arteaga’s sister, Lidia, said in an interview. ″They (the police) can’t kill people like that.″ Police officials did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

Both rebel and government forces have been accused of committing atrocities during the Nov. 27-28 military uprising.

Human rights groups say government forces killed 25 unarmed civilians and may have physically mistreated 19 people imprisoned on charges of participating in the rebellion. The Defense Ministry has denied any abuses by its forces.

The public attorney is also investigating allegations of mistreatment during a Caracas prison riot sparked by the coup attempt. At least 46 people were killed in the riot.

Meanwhile, a special military tribunal is hearing the cases of 239 civilians and soldiers accused of complicity in the revolt. Authorities can make arrests without warrants under a decree that temporarily suspended some rights.

″We have an authoritarian democracy,″ Pedro Nikken, a law professor at the Venezuelan Central University, told a news conference called by the private Venezuelan Program of Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA).

Defense Minister Ivan Jimenez Sanchez denied any abuses by government soldiers, instead blaming rebels for the atrocities during what was Venezuela’s second coup attempt since February.

″I would like to know where are the human rights of those who died, of the injured still in hospitals, of the people who lost their homes, of the merchants who lost their businesses and of all those affected by the events of Nov. 27,″ Jimenez said.

Ranking Air Force officers and sympathizing soldiers who participated in the rebellion said they were acting on behalf of the poor in this oil-rich nation.

Concern over possible atrocities is shared by international rights groups. An envoy from the U.S.-based Americas Watch said after visiting Caracas in December that he was concerned about defendants’ rights.

Amnesty International sent a letter to President Carlos Andres Perez last month expressing concern about ″an as-yet undetermined number of deaths of citizens caused by the apparent excessive or arbitrary use of firearms by security forces.″

The government puts the civilian and military death toll from the rebellion at 232. Provea says 325 people died.

Of these, Provea says 25 people who posed no threat were killed by government security forces. In one case, Caracas police shot a 23-year-old medical student in the back who was helping wounded people, the group reported.

Also on Nov. 27, a riot broke out in the Reten de Catia prison in Caracas and continued until the National Guard stormed the prison two days later.

Confirmed deaths total 45 prisoners and one policeman, the Justice Ministry says. Provea says prisoners’ families place the death toll at about 200.

The Justice Ministry says prisoners, excited by rumors the government had fallen, tried to escape and started a melee in which they killed each other using smuggled guns and homemade knives.

Families say guards told the prisoners they could flee, then shot them. ″They (the guards) didn’t want to kill,″ said Justice Vice Minister Jaime Rimer Pena. ″They wanted to preserve order.″

But the sister of one 20-year-old prisoner said her brother saw a guard kill two unarmed prisoners in their cell with shots to the head.

″I think they killed all those prisoners for convenience,″ said the sister, who requested anonymity to protect her brother.

Reports of mistreatment of prisoners also have surfaced.

Nineteen people imprisoned on charges of involvement in the uprising told the public attorney’s office or Provea that they were physically mistreated by military or civilian authorities.

One method was applying electric shocks to prisoner’s testicles, families told Provea.

Medical examinations have been ordered of the alleged victims and, if evidence of mistreatment is found, those responsible will be prosecuted, deputy public attorney Antonio Jose Herrera said.

The public attorney is also looking into whether rebels used unnecessary violence in taking a government television station Nov. 27. Herrera said. Five civilians and three soldiers died in the incident.

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