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The Venezuelan authorities should investigate the security forces’ use of lethal force during a prison weapons search on January 25, 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should take urgent measures to ensure that such incidents are not repeated.

According to official reports, at least 56 prisoners and one member of the National Guard were killed during the January 25 clash between National Guardsmen and inmates of Uribana prison, in Lara state. Forty-six prisoners were hospitalized with serious injuries.

“The casualty figures raise serious concerns that the use of lethal force at Uribana prison was far out of proportion with the need,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “While the government is justified in disarming prisoners, when faced by resistance it should always observe international principles on the use of lethal force.”

News media reported that the prison was first surrounded by tanks and that hundreds of National Guard officers then participated in a search for weapons. The minister for prison services, Iris Varela, said that she had ordered the search after receiving reports of inmate violence in the prison, and that some prisoners had attacked members of the National Guard at the beginning of the search.

The acting vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, has asked the attorney general and the president of the National Assembly to open investigations into the deaths. However, similar probes into incidents in 2011 and 2012 by the attorney general’s office and legislators did not lead to any public accounting of what happened or determination of responsibility for the loss of life and injuries.

Overcrowding, substandard conditions, a high number of pretrial detainees, and corrupt guards who traffic weapons and drugs to inmates have been persistent problems in Venezuelan prisons for years. Fights for control by rival inmate gangs frequently lead to shooting deaths. In 2012, 591 inmates died and 1,132 were injured in violent incidents in Venezuelan prisons, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, an advocacy group.

The minister of prison services accused the television station Globovisión and an online newspaper, Impulso, of “setting off” the violence by announcing that the search was about to take place. In October 2011, Globovisión, the only remaining television station with national coverage consistently critical of government policies, was fined US$2.1 million for its coverage of a prison riot in June 2011.

“Instead of lashing out again at its critics in the media, the government should seek solutions to the appalling conditions in Venezuela’s prisons to make sure that tragedies like this do not happen again,” Vivanco said.

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