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Human Rights violations in Iraq? Observe Venezuela...

By Aleksander Boyd

London 07 May 2004 – The British public is dismayed by the abuses and humiliation done by American soldiers to Iraqi prisoners, and rightly so. The Geneva convention seems to be quite impractical nowadays. There is a very old adage that says “en la guerra y en el amor todo se vale” which translates into “in the realm of war and love anything goes.” Pictures of mistreated and abused women and men have been published in Western media much to the horror of the audience. Enemies of the war feel that their claims have been somewhat justified and the fundamentalists from the left have re-launched their ferocious slander campaign against Bush & Blair. As a matter of fact it seems to me that since the Madrid bombing has already taken a third tier role in people’s interests, the abuses perpetrated on Iraqis serves very well to reignite the flame of hatred towards the establishment.

Recently in a place called Fort Mara in Venezuela, 8 VENEZUELAN soldiers were purportedly set on fire whilst under arrest. President Hugo Chavez, in his customary deceitful self, declared in one of his nationwide television programs that the burns suffered by the said soldiers were ‘slight.’ It so happened that the very same night of the presidential declarations one of the ‘slightly’ burnt soldiers, Orlando Bustamante, died from his injuries. As a result we witnessed how Venezuela’s Information Minister, took responsibility personally and resigned from office. Not a week had passed when Hugo Chavez announced that the Information Minister would continue in charge of the Ministry. A second ‘slightly’ burnt soldier was fighting for his life in the intensive care unit of a hospital. Military personnel tried, unsuccessfully, to take him to a military hospital in Caracas, which is about 500 miles from where he was being treated and also where his family resides, i.e. Maracaibo. Angel Pedreañez, name of the second fatal victim, was recovering well -the worse period having passed- he underwent reconstructive surgery two days ago when a heart failure caused his death. It is worth noting that up to that stage the investigations with respect to the case were conducted by the army.

The official version has it that the soldiers were burnt due to cigarette butts. That is to say 8 soldiers under arrest, all in one cell, got burnt because one of them fell asleep whilst smoking, which lit his mattress causing the fire to spread rapidly to the other mattresses burning them. One’s imagination need to be stressed beyond its limits to believe such a ludicrous version. First of all, cigarette butts do not lit mattresses unless you put considerable effort into it (if you don’t believe it try it at home). Second, soldiers under disciplinary arrest are not permitted to smoke. Thirdly, it is impossible to believe that 8 grown men were not capable of extinguishing an alleged fire in a mattress. Fourthly, they were not locked in the middle of nowhere but in a military fort where, presumably, the presence of others is mandatory, or shall we assume that all the staff of the fort decided to lock themselves in and threw away the key after setting the place on fire? Fifthly, help materialised after the injuries were grave enough to have caused first, second and third degree over 50% of some of the soldier's bodies. This brings us to another point. The soldiers were burnt only from the waist up; their legs did not suffer any damage. Imagine you are sleeping and your bed catches fire, is it sound to think that only your upper body will be burnt? Mind you that was not the case of one or two of them –they may have been sharing a bed- but all of them.

Before his death, soldier Pedreañez declared to his lawyer that they were burnt with a flamethrower. This is the unofficial version that has been haunting Hugo Chavez and his minions. Allegedly the soldiers were placed under arrest for having ignored orders from Cubans present in the fort. Their insolence was to be exemplarily castigated with the use of a flamethrower, which could also explain why they were burnt from the waist up taking into consideration that the flare must have entered the cell through the cell’s window. To make the case more plausible we have learned today that one of the soldiers assigned to Fort Mara (Jesus Barroso), although not one of the party of reprimanded, has deserted the army and went straight to denounce that his colleagues were burnt on purpose. He further commented that it took him 10 minutes to get the cell’s keys and once they were out another 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. Mention to a flamethrower was not made, however he said that he saw yet another soldier with a container, that was meant to contain water to extinguish the fire, which had been filled instead with gasoline, for when he put off the fire with an extinguisher there was a strong smell of gasoline inside the cell. Purportedly Bustamante, first soldier to die, said to Barroso that they were disciplined because they signed the petition recall against Chavez.

As investigations were in the hands of the army until very recently (they have now been passed to the Attorney General’s office after more than 30 days) we will never know for sure what happened. Nonetheless one can easily draw some conclusions out of this tragic issue. Whatever the reasons for the disciplinary measure it is obvious that the army and the government of Hugo Chavez have failed, yet again, to investigate accordingly grave human rights abuses performed by men under their command. In that sense one must wonder why it took the public authorities more than a month to decide to commence with the investigations. In Iraq’s case, which needs to be stressed is a country without institutional framework, the issue of abuses towards prisoners have reached No 10 and the White House. The outcry in that respect has taken global dimensions. In Venezuela, however, we hear the official statements of Jessy Chacon, Information Minister, saying that the evil media has no ethics for it disrespects the memory of Pedreañez and the mourning of his family. This ‘ethical spiel’ comes from an individual that posed proudly for a photograph with his boot and assault riffle over a cadaver in VTV only twelve years ago. Hugo Chavez rushed into the scene and promised an extraordinary increase in the army’s budget, taking the opportunity to make believe that the whole issue is nothing but another spin case of the Venezuelan media. Why is he not so intent in uncovering the issue? Why does he recourse to mudslinging and outright lying instead of spearheading an investigative commission in that respect? Human rights abuses in Iraq are grave but Venezuela’s are as grave or graver still.

The international community is yet to awake to the monstrosities of Hugo Chavez' revolution. The disgust towards the army is so generalised today in the country that the family of Angel Pedreañez decided to bury their son without the military uniform. Furthermore his father maintains that he was killed by the government in a desperate attempt to silence him. Pedreañez’ own message says it all, alas as in countless previous occasions nobody will go to prison over his death. In Hugo Chavez’ own perception there is indeed a war going on between himself and Fidel Castro and the rest of the planet and as the adage says it anything goes, even setting on fire his fellow armymen.

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