Questions, condemnations of Venezuela dissident's death

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Questions and condemnation of Venezuela's leadership poured in Tuesday following the suspicious death of an opposition activist who authorities say evaded justice by throwing himself from the 10th floor of a police building.

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Fernando Alban was arrested Friday at Caracas' international airport upon arrival from a trip to New York to galvanize world opinion against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

The country's chief prosecutor said that Alban killed himself Monday by leaping from the 10th floor of the state police agency's headquarters, where he was being held for alleged involvement in an international plot to kill Maduro using explosive-laden drones.

But opposition leaders, backed by several foreign governments, have cast doubt on the official version, and accused Maduro's government of torture and murdering the politician.

The U.S. State Department said it condemns what it called a human rights violation, while Spain's leftist government called for consultations the Venezuelan ambassador in Madrid over the death.

Meanwhile, the United Nations urged officials in Caracas to launch an impartial probe to resolve the conflicting versions of how Alban died.

"There are so many different reports and quite a lot of speculation on exactly what happened," said Ravina Shamdasani of the U.N.'s top human rights office in Geneva. "Whether Mr. Alban committed suicide, whether he was thrown, or what exactly happened."

As international criticism of Maduro's government grew, Alban's family, fellow politicians and family members of other jailed activists paid a final tribute to him Tuesday in a ceremony at the opposition-controlled Congress.

A who's who of opposition leaders took turns filing past Alban's casket, draped in the Venezuelan flag, while his grief-stricken sister placed a framed portrait of her deeply religious brother shadowed by an image of Jesus Christ.

Hours after his death, a few dozen of Alban's supporters gathered outside the police building yelling "Maduro killer!" contending that he had been murdered. They later assembled outside Caracas' morgue to demand his body be handed over as rumors spread he would be cremated to hide evidence of possible torture.

"There's no doubt this was an assassination," opposition leader Julio Borges said in a video from exile in neighboring Colombia, without providing evidence of his claim. "The only thing left for this government is torture, violence and destruction."

While dozens of youths were killed in violent street battles with security forces last year, the death of government opponents while in state custody came as a shock to many Venezuelans, something akin to the far deadlier, right-wing dictatorships that dominated South America in the 1970s that Maduro frequently denounces.

The opposition claims that more than 100 Venezuelans opposed to Maduro are being held as "political prisoners," some for more than four years, with little access to the outside world and their legal rights routinely trampled on. The government denies they are political prisoners.

Borges, who led the delegation to the U.N., said Alban's wife told him that her husband had been under intense pressure to testify against him in the ongoing probe into the alleged plot in early August to kill Maduro using two drones loaded with explosives.

More than two dozen people have been jailed on suspicion of involvement in the plot, which Maduro claims was orchestrated by Borges with the support of Colombia and the U.S.

Chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab ordered an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Alban's death, which he classified as a suicide.

In brief comments on state TV, he said Alban was in the waiting room of the headquarters of Venezuela's intelligence police waiting to be transferred to a courthouse when he asked to use the bathroom. He then threw himself from the 10th floor of the building, officials said.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is in Venezuela for meetings with Maduro and his opponents, called Alban's death while in the government's custody "disturbing."

"The government has a responsibility to ensure all understand how that could have happened," he said in a message posted on Twitter.

Also expressing concern was Venezuela's Catholic bishops' conference and Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States and a sharp critic of Venezuela's socialist government, who called Alban's death "the direct responsibility of a torturing and homicidal regime."

Borges, who said Alban was a personal friend, said the councilman, who represented a district in the Caracas area, was a family man and devout Catholic who would never kill himself.

"Alban is a very Christian person, with deep spiritual convictions that go contrary to a decision to take one's life," said lawyer Joel Garcia, who has represented Alban.

He said he met with Alban the night before in the tribunal and his client had seemed calm. Garcia said authorities cannot determine that a death is a suicide without an investigation and he would ask to be present at the autopsy.

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This story has been corrected to say that the UN is calling on Venezuelan officials to investigate death, not that it is investigating the death.