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Death of Venezuelan Navy Captain Draws Eye of UN Watchdog

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a ceremony at a Navy base in Catia La Mar, Venezuela May 14, 2019 in this handout picture from Miraflores Palace, May 14, 2019.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Venezuelan authorities Monday to quickly launch an independent investigation into the death of a navy captain who died in custody after being arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro.

Guterres is “deeply concerned” at reports of Capt. Rafael Acosta's death, and he urged a prompt, independent investigation, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, adding that Guterres wants the government to bring anyone responsible for his death to justice.

Acosta died Saturday hours after his attorney Alonso Medina Roa says his bruised and bloody client was brought to court in a wheelchair, unable to stand from intense pain and struggling to speak, covered with cuts and with bloody fingernails and black eyes. He died a short time later after a judge ordered him transferred to a military hospital.

The government says that Acosta and five other members of the armed forces or judicial police planned to launch an operation on June 23 to kill Maduro and other top officials, including first lady Cilia Flores and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello.

A manhunt is underway for eight other men suspected in the plot, officials say. Security forces arrested Acosta on June 21 on the outskirts of Caracas, Medina Roa said, adding that his client was healthy at the time.

Acosta's wife, Waleska de Acosta, has denied he planned to kill the president, while acknowledging that her husband opposed Maduro. She and her husband have two children aged 4 and 12, de Acosta said.

The death has drawn condemnation from the United States and several other nations as well as opposition leader Juan Guaido, who renewed calls on the military to reject Maduro and join his movement to oust the socialist president.

Acosta's death follows a recent visit to Venezuela by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bachelet concluded her three-day trip calling on the government to free all those detained for “exercising their civil and political rights in a peaceful manner.”

Bachelet expanded on Guterres' comments in her own statement Monday, saying she was “shocked” by allegations of torture, which may have been the cause of Acosta's death.

“I remind the Venezuelan authorities that they are responsible for the life, and the physical and psychological integrity of all people deprived of their liberty,” Bachelet said. “Structural measures should also be urgently adopted to prevent the recurrence of torture and other ill-treatment of people held in custody by the State.”

Bachelet urged authorities to let attorneys and relatives visit six others arrested in the case. She said two members of the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence, agency that had Acosta in custody, have been charged on suspicion of first-degree murder. But she added that torture allegations didn't appear to be included in the charges.

Venezuela's chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab has said Maduro ordered a thorough and scientific investigation.