Venezuelan authorities arrested eight Merida state police officers on Tuesday for their suspected involvement in the fatal shooting of student leader Yuban Ortega during a protest last week.
The police are charged with homicide, complicity with homicide, illegal use of firearms, and violation of international conventions regarding police conduct.
Ortega, who was the president of the student association and an active supporter of the government of President Hugo ChÃ¡vez, was shot in the forehead with a marble during a student-led demonstration against allegedly corrupt university authorities last Tuesday. He died in a local hospital early Friday morning.
It is suspected that the police had fired marbles in addition to the usual plastic shrapnel from their shotguns to break up the protest, a practice that has occurred in the past and is a violation of the law.
According to the youth wing of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (JPSUV), Ortega was unarmed and the students were protesting peacefully when the shooting occurred. The JPSUV condemned the shooting and called for the acceleration of the government’s police reform program.
On several occasions over the past four years, student protests led by the anti-ChÃ¡vez opposition group M-13 have turned violent, with the students attacking police with rocks, glass bottles, home-made weapons, and sometimes firearms.
On Sunday, President ChÃ¡vez expressed his grief over Ortega’s death and said an overhaul of the nation’s police forces, which have a record of bloody repression and corruption stretching back decades before ChÃ¡vez’s presidency, is underway.
“Whoever is responsible [for Ortega’s death], the full weight of the law must fall upon them,” ChÃ¡vez said during his weekly presidential talk show AlÃ³ Presidente. “If the police do not want to comply with their obligations, takeover the police! Disarm them, and assume their responsibilities!” said the president.
Last year, the National Assembly passed a new law to govern the creation of a national police force based on a non-repressive police model. This model was created through a two-year process of consultation with human rights organizations, local communities and police forces, and regional government officials starting in 2006.
“We are giving birth to the new National Police,” said ChÃ¡vez on Sunday.
ChÃ¡vez’s comments followed four days of violent student protests in MÃ©rida in reaction to the shooting of Ortega. Opposition students and leftist pro-ChÃ¡vez students held separate protests in distinct sections of the city to denounce the shooting. Both groups used violent tactics, burning stolen vehicles and car tires to block off streets and throwing rocks at police and National Guard officers who attempted to break up the protests.
JPSUV leaders released statements to the media on Monday saying they denounce the repressive use of force by state police, but also rejected violent destabilization as a tactic to protest it. “We defend the need for justice, but we are not going to generate disturbance and disorder in the streets,” said JSUV leader Tito Oviedo in an interview with the state television channel VTV.
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This post was written by James Suggett