(WB) The U.S. has joined the growing calls for the Venezuelan government to release five HIV/AIDS service providers who were arrested on Jan. 12.

press release from Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), a Venezuelan human rights organization, notes members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence on Jan. 12 raided the offices of Azul Positivo in Maracaibo, a city in the country’s Zulia state.

“After questioning directors of the organization present at the headquarters for a period of six hours, without a legal order or allowing outside contact with them, the officials proceeded to arrest six members, including its president Johan León Reyes,” says PROVEA in its press release that it released on Jan. 13. “None of these people have been released and their current situation is unknown.”

A source in Venezuela on Saturday told the Washington Blade that authorities released a driver who is heterosexual the following day. The source notes León and his four other colleagues — who they said are gay men with HIV — remain in custody and are in a Maracaibo hospital because they have the coronavirus.

“They are still in jail, but they have been temporarily moved,” said the source. “They are handcuffed.”

James “Jimmy” Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, on Jan. 21 called for the men’s release.

“We call for the release of the five Azul Positivo employees and we condemn the attack against this NGO that provides assistance to seropositive people in the state of Zulia and that leaves the poorest communities more vulnerable,” he tweeted, while adding the raid “leaves the poorest communities more vulnerable.”

“Enough criminalization of humanitarian aid,” said Story.

Story in a Jan. 29 directly criticized President Nicolás Maduro and his government’s continued crackdown against NGOs in the country.

“On this Day of the Social Worker, the world asks why employees of the NGO Azul Positivo, which has been working for the health of seropositive people in Zulia for more than 16 years, have been detained,” he tweeted. “What does Maduro want by attacking NGOs? What kind of peace for the people is this?”

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet are among those who have also called for the men’s release.

“I call on the Venezuelan authorities to release from police custody the five humanitarians working for the nongovernmental organization Azul Positivo, and to return essential equipment seized at the time of their arrest,” said Byanyima in a Jan. 29 UNAIDS press release. “A strong and empowered civil society plays a central role in providing much-needed services to the most vulnerable people and is critical to making progress against the HIV pandemic and other health threats in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

More than 100 Venezuelan NGOs and human rights organizations have also called for the Azul Positivo staffers’ release.

“Azul Positivo is an allied organization of United Nations agencies, contributing to UNAIDS by carrying out tests for the detection of HIV in a fast, safe and free way to communities of popular sectors,” they said in a statement contained in PROVEA’s Jan. 13 press release. “Azul Positivo is an important partner of the U.N. Refugee Agency [UNHCR] and the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA] for contributing to the implementation of projects in the border area with Colombia on sexual and reproductive orientation for teenagers, young women and pregnant women.”

The source in Venezuela with whom the Blade spoke noted Azul Positivo receives UNHCR funds. The source also said Azul Positivo provided food and medications to “homeless and starving people” on the country’s border with Colombia.

“It’s not convenient,” the source told the Blade, referring to the Venezuelan government when asked why it decided to arrest the Azul Positivo staffers.

Pandemic exacerbates dire situation for Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS

The arrests took place against the backdrop of Venezuela’s worsening economic and political crises.

Millions of Venezuelans in recent years have migrated to Colombia and other South American countries.

The Blade has previously reported the crises have exacerbated the already precarious situation of Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS because of a lack of access to antiretroviral drugs, food and other basic needs. The coronavirus pandemic has made their plight even more acute.

Police on Feb. 15, 2019, raided the offices of Fundación Mavid, an HIV/AIDS service organization in the city of Valencia in Carabobo state and arrested three staffers after they confiscated donated infant formula and medications for people with HIV/AIDS. The Venezuelan government continues to target human rights activists, journalists and others who publicly criticize it.

The source in Venezuela with whom the Blade spoke said Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who the U.S. currently recognizes as the country’s president, has called for the Azul Positivo staffers’ release. The source noted, however, Guaidó has conceded there is not much he can do to pressure Maduro.