CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's government is facing mounting criticism from activists and the U.N. human rights office for its handling of the country's overcrowded and violent prisons following a clash between inmates and troops that left at least 58 dead.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern on Tuesday about "an alarming pattern of violence in Venezuelan prisons, which is a direct consequence of poor conditions."
The government said the violence erupted Friday at Uribana prison in the city of Barquisimeto when armed inmates clashed with National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection. Nearly all those killed were prisoners.
"We call for prompt and effective investigations into this incident," Colville said at a news conference in Geneva. "We also call on the Venezuelan government to adopt urgent measures to ensure that conditions of detention comply with international human rights standards."
The U.N. human rights office noted that guns are widespread in Venezuelan prisons and violence is frequent. It said government authorities bear responsibility for what happens to inmates.
A group of Venezuelan human rights groups sent a complaint about the latest prison violence to international bodies including the U.N. human rights office and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The rights groups called it a massacre and said those responsible should be punished.
"This is the absolute responsibility of the state," said Carlos Nieto, an activist who leads the group Una Ventana a la Libertad, or A Window to Freedom.
"The information we have is that officials ... started to fire at inmates and they responded," Nieto said.
He and other activists who sent the complaint said that clearly the authorities had used excessive force. Activist Rocio San Miguel called that "morally unacceptable."
The victims included 56 inmates, a National Guard soldier and a Protestant pastor, Nieto said. The human rights groups also presented to Venezuelan prosecutors a document demanding a thorough investigation, something the government has promised.
Nieto said the responsibility falls on the government and Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro defended the government's actions and said the "first steps" are being taken to improve the country's prisons.
"We have to succeed in bringing the country truly model prisons," Maduro said in a televised speech at a newly opened school. "It's a difficult issue, well, an unresolved issue. But we're going to solve it."
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