On January 31, 2017, three student activists were reportedly detained by civilians and later by police officers following a peaceful protest at the University of Los Andes (ULA).
Various student and faculty groups reportedly assembled at the Faculty of Dentistry on ULA’s Mérida campus to protest a government proposal to eliminate a reduction in transit rates for students. Demonstrators later left the campus and marched on the Avenida Las Américas up to the Campo Elías Viaduct until approximately 3:15 pm when they dispersed. Shortly thereafter, as three student protesters belonging to a group known as ULA Equipo 10 – Josué Colina, Yuri Machado, and Pablo Sánchez – attempted to board a bus on their way home, they were reportedly approached by unidentified members of one of the country’s colectivos (armed groups reportedly aligned with the ruling party). The students, who were reportedly wearing clothing that indicated their membership in a student group, attempted to take refuge in a nearby hair salon, but were ultimately prevented from leaving by the colectivo members until police officers took them into custody and brought them to Mérida’s police headquarters.
Later that afternoon, members of ULA’s Observatorio de Derechos Humanos (ODH-ULA), along with the students’ lawyers and family, reportedly arrived at police headquarters and sought an explanation as to why the students had been detained. Police officials reportedly responded that civilians had allegedly felt “aggrieved” by the students and suspected the students of intent to set the bus on fire. One official further stated that the students were not being kept in detention, despite reports that they were not being allowed to leave, and their lawyers were not permitted to speak with or see them. One officer claimed that the students were being held until the driver of the bus the students had attempted to board could arrive to provide a statement on the students’ actions. At approximately 7:00 pm, the police reportedly released the students.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention of students apparently in retaliation for their non-violent exercise of the rights to free expression and association, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Detention aimed at limiting or retaliating against student expression and association undermines academic freedom and society generally. States have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of free expression and association, due process, and fair trial.