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Venezuela officials bury navy captain over family protests

July 11, 2019
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The tomb of Navy Captain Rafael Acosta lies at the East cemetery in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday July 10, 2019. Acosta, a Venezuelan navy captain who died of suspected torture while in government custody, was buried by authorities against the family's wishes to perform a private ceremony, an attorney and relatives said. (AP Photo/Leonardo Fernandez)
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The tomb of Navy Captain Rafael Acosta lies at the East cemetery in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday July 10, 2019. Acosta, a Venezuelan navy captain who died of suspected torture while in government custody, was buried by authorities against the family's wishes to perform a private ceremony, an attorney and relatives said. (AP Photo/Leonardo Fernandez)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Venezuelan navy captain who died of suspected torture while in state custody was buried by authorities Wednesday against the family’s wishes after refusing to return his body to loved ones, an attorney for relatives said.

Officials quickly interred Capt. Rafael Acosta at a Caracas cemetery 12 days after his death, while his family wanted him buried in the central city of Maracay, lawyer Alonso Medina Roa said.

“It’s as if the government is saying, ‘I killed him, so I’ll bury him,’” Medina Roa said.

Acosta’s death came at a time the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro has fallen under mounting international pressure following a United Nations’ report chronicling human rights abuses in Venezuela.

Maduro is also under challenge from opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó, who is rallying pressure to oust the president with support from the United States and about four dozen other nations.

Acosta’s sister identified the body, which was buried by the state under a court order, Medina Roa said. He said an autopsy indicated Acosta died of trauma.

Acosta’s wife, Waleska de Acosta, said the government burial denied her the right to bury her husband privately in Maracay.

“I didn’t hire this company to conduct funeral services,” she said in a short video posted on Twitter several hours before the burial.

Acosta died in late June, hours after appearing in court on what the government said was suspicion of plotting to assassinate Maduro. His wife has said her husband opposed Maduro, but she denies he planned to kill the president.

Acosta’s attorney has said that the captain was brought to court in a wheelchair, unable to stand and struggling to speak, covered with cuts and with bloody fingernails and black eyes.

Venezuelan authorities say they have jailed two suspects in the death — a lieutenant and sergeant in military counterintelligence charged them with homicide. The charges don’t include torture, which has drawn international criticism.

Acosta was arrested the same day U.N. human rights watchdog Michelle Bachelet ended a visit to Venezuela that resulted in a scathing report on abuses committed by Maduro’s government.

Bachelet has said she was “shocked” by allegations that Acosta died of torture, urging Venezuelan officials to conduct an in-depth investigation. She said that should include an autopsy meeting international standards and “is both independent and transparent.”

Zair Mundaray, an exiled former Venezuelan prosecutor, said Acosta suffered 16 broken ribs and burns on his feet that pointed to use of electric shocks. Mundaray said he was briefed on the autopsy findings by members of Venezuela’s judiciary who had access to the report. The Associated Press could not verify the claims.

Acosta’s atypical burial mirrored procedures followed last year when former police helicopter pilot Oscar Pérez was laid to rest after dying in a gunbattle with security forces. Pérez was labelled a “terrorist” by the government after he lobbed grenades at government buildings from a helicopter.

Many of Maduro’s opponents believe Pérez was shot at point blank range because authorities refused to release the body to family members or allow them to perform an autopsy. The government eventually opted for a “controlled burial” similar to the one ordered for Acosta.

“In the wake of Bachelet’s report the government is clearly afraid,” said William Jimenez, a former legal adviser to the government-run morgue who fled Venezuela after protesting to his superiors the way Pérez’s autopsy was handled. “They know all the signs of torture are so obvious that they can’t be hidden. But they fear the consequences even more.”

Upon her return to Geneva, Bachelet issued a scathing report accusing Venezuela’s security forces of nearly 5,300 killings last year. Venezuelans interviewed by human rights workers referred to a particular security unit as a “death squad” or “extermination group,” the report said.

Maduro’s government has also undermined the rule of law and dismantled democratic institutions, the report said.

Maduro rejected Bachelet’s report. He says the United States is leading an international conspiracy to overthrow his government. Venezuela’s ruling party headed by Maduro says it will march through Caracas on Saturday to voice objections to the U.N. report.

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