CARACAS, Venezuela (WOMENSENEWS)--Clad in a white T-shirt with pink teddy bears, the freckly 21-year-old pauses as she tells the story of being kidnapped, raped and tortured four years ago.
"He violated me in every way," says a soft-spoken Linda Loaiza Lopez, her scarred lower lip dipping as she speaks, revealing braces she's needed to regroup her teeth after several reconstructions of her jaw. "I was brutally raped and savagely beaten. That's why my body is deformed like this now."
New to the City.
Loaiza Lopez was 18 at the time and had just arrived in the capital city of Caracas from Merida, a town in the interior. She had recently finished pre-college courses as a veterinary assistant. She was on her way to enroll in a state university one morning. It was broad daylight on a relatively busy city street.
A man she didn't know approached her and pushed her into a waiting car. He drove her to a house in the countryside, where he kept her for two months, raping and beating her so badly the police came to investigate complaints from neighbors about the screams they heard. Then he moved her to Caracas, where he continued to assault her.
After four nightmarish months, her kidnapper left the house one day without tying her up. Loaiza Lopez sought help and was rescued by the authorities. She was malnourished, her ears had been destroyed, a nipple cut off. Sores and cigarette burns covered her body.
"I've had nine operations, one to my right eye for traumatic cataracts, three fractures to the jaw, two reconstructions of my abdomen and four operations on my lips," she lists.
Loaiza Lopez' perpetrator is free.
Two years ago a judge acquitted the accused assailant on the grounds of insufficient evidence. In April, an appeals court rescinded the 2004 ruling and ordered a new trial. After many delays, the latest retrial date has been set for Oct. 10.
Father of Accused Is Politician
The man she has accused is Luis Carrera Almoina, the son of Gustavo Carrera Damas, an influential politician who was president of a major university in Caracas at the time of Loaiza Lopez' ordeal. Gustavo has strong contacts with previous right-wing governments as well as the current leftist government of Hugo Chavez.
After being detained and put under house arrest in August 2001, Carrera Almoina attempted to flee with the help of his father. He was captured the next day. His father was later charged with obstructing judicial action.
Carrera Almoina had been previously arrested for torturing a former partner in 1999.
The first trial was postponed by the justice system 29 times. Fifty nine judges have declined to hear the case.
In August 2004, nearly three years after Loaiza Lopez' lawyers charged him with attempted murder, rape, false kidnapping and torture, Carrera Almoina's case was approaching the statute of limitations, after which charges would have to be dropped.
To prevent him from walking free of charges, Loaiza Lopez staged a hunger strike on the front steps of the Supreme Court.
After 13 days of steady media attention, the trial opened in October 2004. When the verdict came on Oct. 22, 2004, Carrera Almoina was found not guilty by Judge Rosa Cadiz for lack of evidence.
Signs of Corruption Cited
Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, says the case reflects deep-rooted corruption and politicization of the justice systems across the region.
"Here you're talking about a public official who, although connected to the university, is connected to government," says Gamarra. "Many people are afraid that those judges are not ruling based on their training but as Bolivarian sympathizers."
When Loaiza Lopez was abducted four years ago, the populist Chavez government was facing mounting protests from opponents of his self-proclaimed "Bolivarian revolution."
The polarization culminated in an attempted coup, which briefly ousted him from power the following year. Venezuela was politicized as never before and supporters of both political camps intervened in Lopez case to profess sympathy with her.
Loaiza Lopez believes the strong political ties that the father of her accused had to both political factions hampered her trial.
Marta Chacon is director general of the government's Instituto Nacional de la Mujer [National Women's Institute], in Caracas, a semi-autonomous body with ministry status.
"Linda's case was manipulated," says Chacon. "It was manipulated at all levels, on the part of the opposition and on the part of the government. Both sides played a part. And she has been the great victim in all of this."
Chacon says Loaiza Lopez ended up feeling used by political actors to the point that she didn't trust Chacon's group to go to bat for her in either the previous or pending trial.
Calls for New Laws Affecting Women
Chacon says President Chavez should make a firm commitment to eradicating violence against women. She adds Venezuela also needs a new penal code and a revision of the law banning domestic violence.
More than anything, she says, it's essential to raise awareness of women's rights among both male and female officials. She says female judges are often the hardest on female victims.
The female judge who absolved Carrera Almoina, Rosa Cadiz, subsequently opened an investigation against Loaiza Lopez and her father after the trial for for prostitution.
Carrera Almoina's defense had suggested she was a prostitute and that her injuries stemmed from her previous work.
Lawyers for Carrera Almoina attempted to exploit a clause in Venezuela's penal code calling for a reduced sentence for crimes against sex workers. Had Carrera Almoina been found guilty and sentenced under this provision, he would have served a fifth of the normal jail time.
The allegations of prostitution--which were never backed up with evidence in court--incensed local women's rights groups.
Law Punishes Victims
Guadalupe Rodriguez, a leader of the community group Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, which works in the low-income neighborhoods of Caracas, says the law that gives reduced sentences to those committing crimes against prostitutes reveals an inherent acceptance of violence against women and re-victimization of its victims.
"It's a poignant example here of women's role in this society," Rodriguez says. "Notice that the judge says she provoked her aggressor. Well we say, 'And what if that were the case? He still didn't have the right to do what he did to her.'"
International Planned Parenthood Federation, based in New York, has conducted an international letter-writing campaign to raise awareness of the case. More than 40,000 people have responded to the campaign so far, writing one of three sample letters to relevant Venezuelan authorities, urging justice.
Loaiza Lopez has herself been persistent in seeking a new trial and making connections with international organizations and meeting with journalists to keep attention on her case.
She is anxious for a better day in court.
"I've never given up fighting for my rights," she says. "I'm not looking for vengeance. I just want justice. And it's beyond Linda Loaiza. I'm fighting for the rights of all women."
Jen Ross is a Chile-based freelance journalist who delves into social issues affecting women across the Americas.
For more information:
International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region--
Justice for Linda:
Mujeres En Accion--Asociacion de Mujeres Hispanas contra la Discriminacion y la Violencia de Genero
Women In Action--Association of Hispanic Women Against Discrimination and Gender Violence:
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