May 16, 2018 / 2:03 PM / 9 days ago

Families of detained Venezuela officers demand their release

CARACAS/MARACAIBO (Reuters) - Family members of Venezuelan army officers arrested in March for alleged conspiracy are demanding their release and denouncing procedural irregularities amid what critics call a growing purge of the crisis-stricken country’s armed forces.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro on March 2 arrested nine mostly high-ranking officers during a wave of rumours of coup plotting by officers angry over the country’s economic collapse.

Family members of two of the imprisoned officers say the charges are based on circumstantial evidence, the case has violated due process, and the accused are innocent.

“We’re talking about a military professional who has had an impeccable career, who was in charge of a battalion, who was all of a sudden detained with no explanation,” said Leonela Difurt de Medina of her husband, Army Lieutenant Colonel Henry Medina.

“The process has been plagued with irregularities from the start.”

The Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The nine are part of a group of some 60 military officers who are currently imprisoned, according to local rights group Penal Forum, a figure that includes former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez, who was arrested in March.

Despite frequently denouncing foiled military uprisings, the Maduro government in this instance has made no official pronouncements about the incident.

Coup rumours have been frequent in Venezuela since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted in a 2002 putsch led by opposition-linked military officers. Critics since then say the ruling Socialist Party has exaggerated coup threats as an excuse to throw adversaries in jail.

Maduro says the armed forces are broadly loyal to his government but that small groups of conspirators have sought to undermine his administration with the help of Washington.

Discontent among the armed forces has grown as hyperinflation eats away at salaries and food shortages leave soldiers and rank-and-file troops struggling to get by.

The indictment on charges of treason and conspiracy says the nine officers were holding meetings in Caracas to discuss an uprising, said Difurt de Medina. The alleged meetings took place at a time when her husband was on the other side of the country, she added.

The detentions include six lieutenant colonels and three lower-ranking officers, according to a lawyer representing the group. Last month they were transferred to different prisons around the country, including several notoriously violent jails.

Military counterintelligence agency DCGIM held the officers incommunicado for more than a week, in violation of regulations, she said. Most of them were later transferred to different prisons around the country.

Juan Carlos Peña, one of the detained officers, was held in handcuffs for the entire week, according to Leanys Ortega, his former wife and mother of his two children, who is also his lawyer. At the time, he was completing a military certification course.

DGCIM officials then falsified the arrest date in official records to make it appear as though they were presented to a judge within 48 hours as required by law, she said.

“Juan Carlos is not a commander, he did not have any troops or weapons under his command - what danger could he have posed?” said Ortega in an interview at her home in the western city of Maracaibo.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from relatives of other detained officials.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Isaac Uruttia; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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