WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(Sergio Ortiz Borbolla/WOLA)

5 Oct 2023 | Commentary

Sexual Violence Against Detained Women in Venezuela: A Government Strategy

As Venezuela continues to suffer from an unprecedented political, social and humanitarian crisis, the Maduro government has become increasingly entrenched and continues to commit grave human rights violations. In recent years, the Maduro government has increased repression through the closure of civic space and arbitrary detentions, particularly of opposition members, real or perceived. Between January 2014 and March 2023, Venezuelan NGO Foro Penal documented the cases of 15,792 people detained for political motives. While any arbitrary detention is a human rights violation, it is important to note that the government’s policy of targeted repression has had a differentiated gender impact. Women who are arbitrarily detained are uniquely vulnerable to acts of gender based violence within detention centers, as well as to poor detainment conditions. These women are also re-victimized by a broken judicial system where acts of violence are rarely investigated and perpetrators are seldom brought to justice. 

To address the widespread human rights violations that continue to take place in Venezuela, the United Nations Human Rights Council established an independent fact-finding mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 2019 to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment since 2014. Throughout its investigation, the Mission devoted specific attention to investigating the differentiated impact of these violations based on gender. 

The Mission has released four reports since its creation, collecting information through confidential interviews and documents, a call for submissions, and a review of open source information. Through a series of interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, former State officials, lawyers, representatives of non-governmental organizations and international personnel, the Mission has found “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela as part of a widespread repressive campaign. Each of these reports provides evidence to believe that sexual violence has and continues to take place within Venezuelan detention centers as a method of torture and coercion.

Acts of sexual violence investigated by the Mission were committed by Venezuelan security officials, such as the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) and the National Police (PNB) in contexts in which victims were either in custody or in detention facilities. The acts investigated by the Mission were typically directed against men and women perceived to be connected to military dissidence or political opposition, however the Mission notes the disproportionate effect of these acts on women. Additionally, the Mission found in their 2021 report that allegations of sexual violence were reported to judicial authorities in Venezuela but not investigated. The lack of investigation of these crimes also became a basis for the decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to allow the Prosecutor to continue to investigate Venezuela.

(Sergio Ortiz Borbolla/WOLA)

Psychological and Physical Torture 

The Fact-Finding Mission reported that DGCIM and SEBIN officials used sexual violence as a means of torture to coerce both male and female victims to confess or reveal information by inflicting both physical pain as well as psychological humiliation and distress. These acts of sexual violence include rape using body parts or objects, threats to rape individuals or have others rape them, threats of rape or other gender violence against victims’ female loved ones, sexual violence, forced nudity, targeted violence against genitals, breasts or abdomens (including targeted beatings or the delivery of electric shocks), invasive and unnecessary body searches.

As part of the 2020 report, sources reported to the Mission that female prisoners were subjected to sexual violence as a means of psychological torture in a specific instance in December 2015 when a group of female prisoners held in El Helicoide, a detention center controlled by the SEBIN, were forced to overhear the rape of a female detainee in the office above them. After hearing her cries of pain, the victim was later brought into the women’s cell, where she confirmed that she had been raped. One witness described that hearing a woman being raped was like torture for all the women in the cell. 

Forced nudity was also documented as a form of torture in the 2023 report, particularly for women detained for political reasons at the National Institute for Feminine Orientation (INOF). According to testimony collected by the Mission, women in this detention center were repeatedly harassed by guards through forced nudity and inspection of their genital organs. On July 7, 2023 during an inspection by the Immediate Response Group for Security and Custody (GRIC) at the INOF detention center for women, detainees were forced to undress and show their vulva and rectum in the prison auditorium while officials inspected and called them derogatory names. The inspection reportedly lasted 12 hours, without providing food or water to the detainees. 

In addition, there are concerning reports about the torture of pregnant women by DGCIM officials. The Mission received credible information that one woman had been severely beaten and asphyxiated to the point of losing consciousness, despite the fact that both she and her partner (also in detention) informed guards that she was in the first trimester of pregnancy. During her detainment she was not provided proper medical attention, despite requests from her family, and approximately one month after her arrest, she was taken to the hospital where she suffered a miscarriage as a result of the torture and poor detainment conditions. 

Women held in Venezuelan detention centers are also more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and coercive transactional sex with intelligence officials, which the UN Fact Finding Mission defined as sexual violence due to the fact that detainees are inherently unable to provide genuine consent free of coercion. Protection from exploitation was not provided, nor were basic goods and commodities made available to all detainees without cost so as to prevent the need for transactional sex. No sexual and reproductive health measures were implemented, for instance, nor were detainees able to access treatment and screening for pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.  

It is important to note that in addition to sexual violence, detention conditions disproportionately impact women and girls. In SEBIN and DGCIM detention facilities, women were reportedly held in unsanitary conditions with less access to water, sunlight and physical activity than male prisoners. In El Helicoide, the Fact Finding Mission found that 30 women were held in an overcrowded cell, without access to running water. When water was available at the center, men were provided first access. This disproportionately affected the women, who in addition to having less access to water than the men for drinking, bathing and cleaning, also needed additional water during menstruation. Women also reported being forced to shower or relieve themselves in front of men due to lack of adequate facilities, which often led to sexual assault. Additionally, women were held without access to menstrual hygiene products. This resulted in women wearing wet and bloodied clothes for multiple days, and facing humiliation as they were mocked by security officials or presented in court in soiled clothes.


The cases of Emirlendris Benítez and María Lourdes Afiuni

While many women have suffered violence while being detained, the case of Emirlendris Benítez is one that particularly highlights the effect that violence and substandard conditions in detainment facilities have on women. On August 5, 2018, Benítez was arbitrarily detained by the DGCIM. The authorities accused her of being involved in a 2018 assassination attempt of Maduro involving a drone. On that day, Benítez decided to accompany her partner who had been hired to drive two people from the city of Barquisimeto to the city of Barinas, however they did not know their two passengers were wanted for allegedly being involved in the attack. As they were passing through Acarigua, they were stopped at a police checkpoint and searched, at which point they were all arbitrarily arrested. Benítez was around three weeks pregnant at the time of her arrest. 

From the moment she was taken into custody, Benítez was subjected to torture. Officers used bags and water to suffocate her, and they repeatedly beat her and kicked her in the stomach after she had implored them not to because she was pregnant. She was kept in isolation and unable to communicate with her family. In October 2018, she was rushed to a military hospital where she miscarried as a result of the torture she suffered. Since then her health has deteriorated dramatically, and she is now wheelchair-bound.

The Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has advocated for Benítez’s case, however she continues to be held at the National Women’s Correctional Institute. Although her arbitrary detention has gained international recognition, Benítez was tried for offenses of terrorism, criminal association, attempted murder of the President, attempted murder with malicious intent of the high military command, damage to public property, treason and the unlawful possession of explosives, and ultimately sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Emirlendris Benítez is not an isolated case. Many women continue to suffer from violence and substandard conditions in these detainment centers, and while the UN Fact Finding Mission investigated cases from 2014 on, there are other emblematic cases of women arbitrarily detained and abused before that. The case of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who was arbitrarily detained in 2009 and sentenced in 2019 to 5 years in prison on charges of corruption, is perhaps the most emblematic. Afiuni was detained while she was serving as Judge 31 of Control of the Metropolitan Area of Caracas, minutes after her decision to replace the sentence of deprivation of liberty for an alleged political prisoner with precautionary measures, in accordance with international human rights standards. During her 14 month detention in a high security prison for women known as Instituto Nacional de Orientación Femenina (INOF), Afiuni experienced several human rights abuses, including torture and rape, which lead to a subsequent miscarriage and other health complications

These cases highlight that violence against women in the context of political persecution not only predates 2014, but continues to occur without justice or visibility. Underreporting continues to be a problem due to revictimization by public and judicial officials, lack of support for victims during accountability processes, lack of trust in law enforcement and prosecution services, and fear of reprisal, often stemming from explicit and implicit threats. As the UN Fact Finding Mission continues to pursue its mandate and investigate crimes against humanity in Venezuela, it is fundamental to continue highlighting the disproportionate effect that this violence has on women and girls.