The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Venezuela responsible on Friday for failing to prevent, investigate or punish extreme violence against a young woman who was kidnaped, raped and tortured in 2001.
The ruling sets a much-anticipated legal precedent and could have implications for victims and survivors worldwide.
The case centres on the abduction, rape and torture of Linda Loaiza Lopez Soto, who was 18 years old at the time.
After being rescued three months after the kidnapping, Lopez had to undergo multiple surgeries for her injuries and disfigurement. She then faced a David-and-Goliath-like quest for justice against her well-connected abductor.
Months of re-victimising proceedings ended in a conviction of her assailant on lesser counts. This prompted her to seek justice elsewhere. She studied law and took her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Fewer than one in 100 petitions ever reach this international tribunal, and this was the first time Venezuela was before the Court for gender-based violence.
In its decision on Friday, the court held Venezuela responsible, “because of its gross omissions”, for the torture and the sexual slavery Lopez suffered, as well as for preventing her access to justice.
“Today I can tell the women of Venezuela and Latin America that have not been able to obtain justice for the violations of their rights within their countries that a reparation is obtainable,” said Lopez. “This is positive jurisprudence that can be used to protect the human rights of women across Latin America and around the world.”
The court ordered Venezuela to revisit the criminal case, pay Lopez and her family compensation, and provide for her lifelong medical and psychological care. The ruling also asked Venezuela to finance any further post-secondary studies for Linda and her siblings, whether in Venezuela or abroad.
The ruling equally ordered Venezuela to acknowledge its responsibility in a public act of recognition and establish prevention mechanisms to prevent such cases from recurring. This includes a curriculum on gender-based violence and discrimination, to be incorporated into the national education system at all levels, which will explicitly bear the name “Linda Loaiza”.
Although the court’s decision is only binding in Venezuela, it creates a powerful international precedent that could benefit women worldwide.
What makes this case so unique is that it tested the state’s responsibility for the actions of a private citizen. By nature, human rights cases have focused on the actions of State officials.
Lopez’s lawyers argued that by failing to act, investigate, punish or prevent the extreme violence she faced, the state was guilty of “acquiescence” and thus responsible for violence committed by a non-state actor. They also argued that state prosecutors revictimised Lopez over years of traumatic and discriminatory court proceedings.
This ruling is also the first within the Inter-American System to classify violence against a woman committed at the hands of an individual as torture.
“This decision by the Inter-American Court sets an historic precedent in terms of violence against women and the discrimination they frequently face when accessing justice,” said Elsa Meany, Senior Attorney with the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).
“It could lay the foundations for Venezuela to carry out structural changes in its laws, public policies and administration of justice,” Meany said in a statement.
She told Al Jazeera prior to the decision that Lopez herself has helped develop guidelines to ensure appropriate medical care for victims of gender-based violence, so their treatment won’t do further harm.
Liliana Ortega, one of Lopez’s representatives from CoFAVIC, detailed her tireless efforts to inspire other survivors during a court hearing in February.
“She has managed to transcend her own personal story in favour of a collective quest. A well-deserved and recognized human rights defender, Linda is an example of courage, persistence and resistance,” Ortega said.
Pointing out that Venezuela does not have a great record of complying with court decisions, Meany said its response could be “complicated by the fact that Venezuela is undergoing a crisis of massive political and economic proportions, and we don’t know what the outcome will be in the short-term.”
Venezuela was informed of the ruling earlier this week, but have not responded to the decision. Officials were not immediately available for comment.
During the hearing, Venezuela’s lawyer accepted the state’s failure to ensure a proper criminal investigation in Linda’s case, or a fair trial within a reasonable timeframe. He also apologised on behalf of Venezuela for “the inadequate performance of the organs of the justice system in the criminal proceedings to punish the terrible acts of violence against women that [Lopez] suffered.”
Lopez said she’s encouraged by the silence-breaking #MeToo movement and hopes her story will inspire survivors to report violence to police and persevere in seeking justice.
But after so many years of legal disappointments, she is careful not to get ahead of herself.
“When the state of Venezuela executes the full content of the sentence, I’ll be able to speak about justice. Until then, impunity persists,” she said.