International Community Should Condemn Abuses, Censorship
February 21, 2014

The Venezuelan government has openly embraced the classic tactics of an authoritarian regime, jailing its opponents, muzzling the media, and intimidating civil society.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director

(New York) – Venezuelan security forces have used excessive and unlawful force against protesters on multiple occasions since February 12, 2014, including beating detainees and shooting at crowds of unarmed people, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government has censored the news media, blocking transmission of a TV channel and threatening to prosecute news outlets for their coverage of the violence. President Nicolás Maduro announced on February 20, 2014, that he had begun proceedings to take CNN off the airwaves in Venezuela, and a press workers union reported on February 21 that the government had cancelled the credentials of CNN’s Caracas correspondent. Journalists and human rights defenders have reported being subject to acts of violence and intimidation by government agents or supporters.

“The Venezuelan government has openly embraced the classic tactics of an authoritarian regime, jailing its opponents, muzzling the media, and intimidating civil society,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

At least three demonstrators have been shot dead, and scores have been injured since February 12.

The Maduro government has blamed opposition leaders for the violence. Leopoldo López, one of the most prominent opposition figures, was arrested on February 18, and a judge ordered his pretrial detention on February 20. An arrest warrant has also been issued for Carlos Vecchio, another leader of López’s political party, according to news reports. The government has yet to present credible evidence linking either man to any crime.

Several governments in Latin America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, and Ecuador, as well as international allies such as Syria and Iran, have expressed support for the Maduro government and criticized what the government characterizes as attempts to destabilize the country.

“Any leaders genuinely concerned with the well-being of democracy in Venezuela should send a clear message that these authoritarian practices are unacceptable,” Vivanco said.

Excessive Use of Force Against Protesters
Human Rights Watch has received multiple reports from local human rights advocates that Venezuelan security forces in Caracas and other parts of the country have beaten or shot at unarmed protesters since February 12.

A video posted online by the newspaper Ultimas Noticias shows uniformed police accompanied by men in civilian clothing in Caracas who appear to be shooting live ammunition at fleeing protesters – among them 24-year-old Bassil Da Costa, who is seen falling to the ground with a fatal gunshot to the head.

The use of live ammunition by security forces would only be lawful under international standards if their targets pose an imminent threat to the life of or of injury to the security forces or third parties. There is video evidence of anti-government protesters engaging in acts of violence and vandalism, including throwing rocks at police. But the government has not provided, nor has Human Rights Watch been able to find after reviewing dozens of videos posted online, footage showing anti-government protesters carrying firearms or using lethal force against security forces or third parties.

All available accounts from witnesses indicate that the majority of protesters were peaceful, and those that engaged in violence or vandalism did not carry firearms or use lethal force against security forces or third parties.

Local human rights advocates also report that demonstrators have been abused in detention. The Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andrés Bello examined information regarding more than 90 cases of detained protesters in Caracas, interviewing both detainees and family members, and found that members of security forces physically abused many of the detainees or threatened them with beatings or rape. Most were held incommunicado and not taken before a judge within the 48-hour limit required by law.

Any protesters who engaged in violence or vandalism should be held accountable, but under no circumstances is it acceptable or lawful to shoot at people who are unarmed or beat them when they are in detention.

Government Response
The Maduro government’s immediate response to the violence on February 12 was to blame López and other opposition leaders. Vice President Elías Jaua declared that López was the “intellectual author” of the killings, and a judge promptly ordered that López be detained. The government has not made public any credible evidence to substantiate these allegations.

López is in pretrial detention while prosecutors determine whether there is enough evidence to accuse him of “incitement to commit crimes” and “association,” among other crimes, media accounts say. The crime of “association” is vaguely defined as “forming part of a group of organized crime” in the country’s Organic Law Against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing, and carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years.

Vecchio is also being investigated for his alleged responsibility in these crimes, media accounts say. On February 20, the reports say, pro-government supporters asked the National Assembly to lift the parliamentary immunity of Maria Corina Machado, a member of the National Assembly who is openly critical of the government.  

On February 16, after Ultimas Noticias posted the video of the shooting of protesters, President Maduro declared on national TV that members of the intelligence police (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, Sebin) who appear in that video had not complied with his order to stay off the streets on the day of the shootings. On February 17, a member of the intelligence police was detained for his participation in the events of February 12, the reports said, and the government dismissed the intelligence police director. The government has not indicated whether members of the intelligence police or other security forces are being investigated for abuses against civilians.

On February 18, media accounts reported that the prosecutor’s office identified Jonathan Rodríguez as one of the non-uniformed men in the Ultimas Noticias video and named him as a suspect in two of the shooting deaths on February 12. Authorities at that time had not yet determined whether he was a member of state security forces.

In the video, neither the uniformed police nor national guardsmen near Rodríguez on the street make any effort to deter him during the shooting, or to prevent him from leaving after he fired his gun.

Armed Groups of Pro-Government Civilians
The local human rights organization Venezuelan Program for Education Action on Human Rights (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos, Provea) has documented how the government of Venezuela has tolerated and promoted groups of armed civilians in the country. These groups have intimidated protesters and initiated violent incidents during demonstrations in various parts of the country since February 12, the rights group says.

President Maduro said on February 15 that he does not “accept violent groups within Chavismo and the Revolution,” and that only the Armed Forces should carry firearms. While these armed groups have operated openly for years, the government has not taken effective steps to disarm them.     

Multiple press accounts reported that on February 18, eight protesters were shot, one fatally, when a group of men in civilian clothes on motorcycles opened fire at demonstrators in Valencia.

Human Rights Defenders
Venezuelan human rights advocates have also reported acts of intimidation and violence. Inti Rodríguez, the media coordinator of Provea, told Human Rights Watch that approximately 20 men dressed in black with their faces covered abducted him as he was leaving his office on the evening of February 12. He said they carried him on a motorcycle without license plates to an area of Caracas allegedly controlled by armed pro-government groups. Rodríguez said that the men held him for two hours, beat him, threatened to kill him, and interrogated him about his human rights work. He said that the men never identified themselves but that the group’s leader used police language, and that he overheard conversations that suggested the men were in contact with security forces.

On February 13, Interior and Justice Minister Manuel Rodríguez Torres accused Humberto Prado, the director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, a local nongovernmental organization that monitors prison conditions in the country, of organizing a plan to “generate lack of governance in all the prisons in the country and promoting a matrix of violence.” Minister Rodríguez Torres claimed that the violence on February 12 was the result of plans conceived in 2012 by Prado and “fascist groups” with the intention of “driving Venezuela to a civil war.”

This is not the first time government officials have sought to discredit Prado by accusing him of attempting to undermine Venezuelan democracy. After Prado criticized the government in June 2011 for its handling of a prison riot, the justice minister at the time accused him of seeking to “destabilize the prison system” and the vice president at the time claimed the criticism was part of a strategy to “politically destabilize the country.” 

Attacks on Journalists
Journalists covering the protests and related violence have reported that both security forces and pro-government demonstrators have detained and physically assaulted them since February 12. Public Space (Espacio Público), a nongovernmental organization that monitors media freedom in Venezuela, has documented 17 cases in which journalists were detained or assaulted, or both between February 12 and 16. These include:

  • Rafael Hernández, a photographer for the magazine Exceso, who reported that members of the investigative police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC) detained him on February 12 after he took a picture of a police officer beating a woman. Hernández was held for nine hours and beaten repeatedly by CICPC officers, Public Space reported. The police confiscated his camera.
  • Juan Pablo Bieri, a Colombian journalist with the TV news channel Red Más Noticias, reported that the National Guard detained him on February 16, and held him for an hour inside a military vehicle, where they interrogated and beat him.
  • Mariana Cadenas, a reporter from the international news agency Agence France-Press, told Human Rights Watch that on February 12, a man dressed in red took her video camera, in which she had images demonstrators being detained and beaten. The man and approximately 10 others with him shouted at her, accusing her of being a “fascist” and a “coup-plotter.” She said that approximately 40 members of the National Guard 30 meters away saw the incident and did not react. When she asked them for help, they refused, and one said: “Didn’t you know what you were exposing yourself to when you came here?”

Censorship of News Media
On February 11, William Castillo, director of CONATEL, the state broadcasting authority, warned media outlets that news coverage of violent incidents could violate the Venezuelan broadcasting law. Castillo cited article 27 of the law, which the pro-Chávez National Assembly passed in 2004 and modified in 2010. The article gives the government broad powers to punish private media for broadcasting material that – in the government’s estimation – “foments anxiety in the population or threatens public order,” “denies the authority of the legitimately constituted authorities,” or “incites or promotes hatred and intolerance for religious [or] political reasons.” 

On February 12, the government ordered the country’s cable providers to stop transmitting the international news channel NTN 24. President Maduro said the next day that that the order had been a “state decision” in response to the channel’s coverage of the protests, which he characterized as an attempt to “transmit worries of a coup d’état.”

On February 13, President Maduro instructed Communications and Information Minister Delcy Rodríguez to “adopt measures” against correspondents of Agence France-Press for having “distorted the truth about the events of February 12.”

On February 15, the Venezuelan government restricted the ability of Twitter users to send images, a representative of Twitter, Inc. told Bloomberg News.

On February 16, Minister Rodríguez said that national and international papers had published “manipulated photos” as part of their coverage of the violence, which constituted a crime, and that the government would “pursue judicial actions” against them. The examples she provided included the use of a photo from Egypt on the blog of the Spanish newspaper ABC, and the use of a photo from 2010 on the Twitter feed of the Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual, to represent current events in Venezuela. The minister also referred to the use by the Argentine newspaper Clarin and the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio of an image of two Venezuelan police officers in front of a burning car, which she accepted as taken during the current protests but that she claimed created a false impression of the officers’ behavior.

On February 20, President Maduro announced that his government had initiated an administrative proceeding to end transmission of the international news channel CNN in Venezuela because of its coverage of the protests and violence. On February 21, a press workers union reported that the government had cancelled the credentials of CNN’s Caracas correspondent.