Venezuelan LGBTQ+ activists demand justice for 33 men arrested over sauna visit

People at a Pride parade in Caracas, Venezuela 2023

LGBTQ+ rights activists are demanding justice after 33 men were “arbitrarily” detained at a sauna in Venezuela’s third largest city, Valencia.

The mass arrests on 23 July, made at the Avalon Club, a bar and sauna popular with the LGBTQ+ community in Valencia, have prompted an outcry.

In response, protests swiftly broke out in both Valencia and Venezuela‘s capital, Caracas, with demonstrators calling for the men to be released. 

Almost 10,000 people have signed a petition – started by the Venezuelan Observatory of LGBTIQ+ Violence – demanding a fair trial for the men, who reportedly face charges of outrage against modesty, conspiracy to commit a crime, and noise pollution. 

People have been sharing updates and outrage under the hashtag #JusticiaParaLos33 [#JusticeForThe33] on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

According to Al Jazeera, 30 of the men were released on “conditional parole” after 72 hours in custody – which means they must report to the authorities every 30 days – while the remaining three, including the Avalon Club’s owner, were let go on 3 August, 10 days after their arrest.

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Two of the men who were arrested told Al Jazeera that they thought it was a “joke” at first, that the police were running a routine inspection. Then they were arrested and detained, without being told why. 

The men’s photos, some of whom were not publicly out about their sexuality, were leaked to local media, where they were accused of participating in an “orgy with HIV” and recording pornography.

The Venezuelan Observatory of LGBTIQ+ Violence described the arrests as an example of “state-sponsored homophobia” on the petition page.

“We firmly believe that these charges are fabricated and a pretext to justify the unjust treatment and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community,” they wrote.

“It is a stark reminder of the grave challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Venezuela, where basic human rights are denied based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Being gay is not a crime in Venezuela, but Al Jazeera reported that the police offered images of condoms and lubricant as evidence for the supposed crimes. 

Same-sex couples cannot get married in Venezuela, and LGBTQ+ people still face discrimination and don’t enjoy the same legal protections that their heterosexual counterparts do. 

The petition includes a letter addressed to the supreme court in Venezuela, expressing “deep concern and outrage” over the “arbitrary detention and the violation of the rights” of those arrested.

The letter reads: “This act of the state-sponsored crackdown on homosexuality is a clear manifestation of the deeply rooted homophobia within certain segments of the Venezuelan law enforcement and judicial system.

“It is a stark reminder of the grave challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Venezuela, where basic human rights are denied based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The Venezuelan Observatory of LGBTIQ+ Violence is calling for a “transparent and fair trial, free from prejudice and discrimination”. They also demand that those who detained the 33 men are held accountable, with an investigation into the incident. 

“We call for the implementation of comprehensive training programs for law enforcement and judicial personnel to sensitize them on LGBTQ+ rights and to eradicate homophobia within their ranks,” the letter concludes. 

‘It’s a new level of criminalisation’

Venezuelan LGBTQ+ activist Yendri Velásquez told PinkNews: “We started the petition because in Venezuela, only public pressure opens the possibility of access to justice. 

“In this case, it’s a new level of criminalisation of LGBTIQ+ people. There’s a homophobia and transphobia in state politics, through omission of our demands and direct action like this detention – but also police extortion and brutality against LGBT people, especially trans women.”

Jau Ramírez, the director of SOMOS, a movement working for LGBTQ+ rights in Venezuela, said that this case has set a “legal precedent” considering how long the men in question were detained without justifiable reasons, France24 reported.

“This escalation of repression is a threat to the fundamental rights and sexual and personal freedoms of everyone in Venezuela,” Ramírez added.

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