Saturday, 18 February 2012

Funerals of victims of Honduras jail fire begin

TEGUCIGALPA - Hondurans have begun burying victims of a deadly fire in a jail, which left 356 people dead this week, as questionmarks still hung over the role of the authorities in the disaster.

Several funerals took place in various towns around the country Friday after authorities handed over to families the bodies of the first 24 victims.

"This was a barbaric crime," said Trinidad Varela, who bid her final farewell to her 28-year-old son, Edwin Ortega, in the town of Talanga, northwest of the capital. "We cannot leave it just like that."

Four days after the blaze swept through the overcrowded Comayagua jail - which had held double its capacity with 852 inmates - the cause of the fire was still unclear.
A U.S. team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) arrived late Thursday and Chilean experts also searched the jail.
The death toll from one of the world's worst prison catastrophes rose by one to 356, after an inmate died in hospital.
Around 60 per cent of the prisoners in Comayagua had not yet been sentenced.
In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, exhausted families waited for their relatives' bodies, kept at a distance due to a strong odor from the morgue. Only 15 bodies had been identified Friday, when the first burials began.
"They told me that it would be difficult to give me my brother's body because it is in a bad state, but I'll stay here until they've done it," said Lindolfo Hernandez. His brother, jailed for 10 years for rape, had been due to be released in just two months.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo suspended top officials from the country's prison system and called for foreign aid with investigations, amid accusations that authorities had been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.
Rights groups and witnesses questioned the role of the guards and the authorities, suggesting negligence or even premeditation.

The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights said in a statement that firefighters had arrived too late, the prison director was absent and the guards failed to open cell doors to save lives.
The Committee of Families of Missing Prisoners expressed concern about a complaint from a non-identified prisoner who told local media that the fire was started by police to cover up a planned escape.

National police spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia ruled out that suggestion, and said that no prisoners had escaped.
But President Lobo acknowledged that some inmates caught up in the fire did escape, without saying how many.
Besides those killed in the blaze, "other inmates fled, but they will be caught," Lobo told reporters at a press conference.
Leftist opposition parties blamed the blaze on "criminal negligence."
Some 500 inmates who survived the fire remained inside the jail, in a wing which was not affected.

"I don't want to stay in this prison," said Marco Valladares, who communicated with his wife by mobile phone from inside the jail. "It's cursed. We knew for a long time that the fire would happen."

Another survivor, Hector Martinez, said: "The facilities are damaged. I'm afraid."
Honduras, which has the world's highest murder rate - 80 per 100,000 people according to the United Nations - has 24 detention centers with a capacity of 8,000. The prison population is around 13,000.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

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