Washington, D.C., June 26, 2014
Hector Timerman, Foreign Affairs Minister of Argentina
Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Foreign Affairs Minister of Brazil
Heraldo Muñoz, Foreign Affairs Minister of Chile
María Ángela Holguín, Foreign Affairs Minister of Colombia
Ricardo Patiño, Foreign Affairs Minister of Ecuador
Gonzálo Gutiérrez Reinel, Foreign Affairs Minister of Peru
Luis Almagro, Foreign Affairs Minister of Uruguay
I am writing to share with you the findings of our most recent report on Venezuela, titled “Punished for Protesting: Rights Violations in Venezuela’s Streets, Detention Centers, and Justice System.” As a member of the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, Unasur) attempting to promote dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition, your government has engaged with the administration of President Nicolás Maduro in a political and diplomatic process. I would like to respectfully urge you to press the Venezuelan authorities to immediately address the very serious human rights problems that the country is facing.
This letter takes into consideration the principles that should guide actions by Unasur. Under the Unasur Constitutive Treaty of 2008, “South American integration and union are based on the guiding principles of… democracy, citizen participation and pluralism; [and] universal, interdependent and indivisible human rights.” The treaty also states that, “fully effective democratic institutions and the unrestricted respect for human rights are essential conditions for building a common future of peace, economic and social prosperity and for the development of integration processes among the Member States.”
In late March, Human Rights Watch went to Venezuela to investigate reports of serious human rights violations committed in the context of the massive recent public protests, which began on February 12. Our experts traveled to Caracas and to the states of Miranda, Lara, and Carabobo, and conducted more than 90 interviews with victims, the doctors who attended them, eyewitnesses, journalists, and human rights defenders. We also gathered judicial documents, medical reports, photographs, video footage and other relevant evidence. During our research, we documented 45 cases of abuse involving more than 150 victims.
The scale of rights violations we found, and the range of security forces and justice officials committing them, shows that these are not isolated incidents or the excesses of a few rogue actors. Rather, they are part of an alarming pattern of abuse that is the worst we have seen in Venezuela in years.
Our research shows that members of the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police and state police forces routinely used unlawful force against unarmed protesters and even bystanders, including severe beatings; firing live ammunition, rubber bullets, and teargas indiscriminately into crowds; and firing pellets (perdigones) deliberately, at point blank range, at unarmed individuals already in custody. The fact that these abuses were carried out repeatedly, by multiple security forces, in multiple locations, and over the six-week period we examined led us to conclude that these human rights violations were part of a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces.
In all locations we visited, we also found a range of serious abuses committed against detainees, who were often held incommunicado on military bases for 48 hours or more, before being presented to a judge. These included beatings; electric shocks or burns; being forced to squat or kneel, without moving, for hours at a time; being handcuffed to other detainees, sometimes in human chains of over 30 people, for hours at a time; and being exposed to extended periods of extreme heat or cold. In at least 10 cases, the evidence we collected indicates that the abuses clearly constituted torture, as defined in international treaties.
In addition, we found that justice officials failed to fulfill their role as a safeguard against abuse of power and instead were party to serious due process violations. Virtually every victim we interviewed was denied access to a lawyer until minutes before judicial hearings, which were often scheduled in the middle of the night. Prosecutors and judges routinely turned a blind eye to evidence suggesting that detainees had been physically abused, or that evidence against them had been planted by security forces.
Our research also demonstrates that security forces deliberately targeted journalists and others photographing and filming the repression against protesters; and that they tolerated, and sometimes collaborated directly with, armed pro-government gangs that attacked protesters with impunity.
President Nicolás Maduro and Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz have both acknowledged that security forces have committed human rights violations, and they have publicly pledged to investigate these cases.
However, there are very good reasons to doubt the credibility of these investigations. As we were able to document, justice officials are themselves directly implicated in serious due process violations. Any proper investigation will require these institutions to investigate themselves, which raises clear conflicts of interest. Moreover, the fact that the Venezuelan judiciary has largely ceased to function as an independent branch of government makes it even more difficult for these investigations to bring those responsible to justice. Finally, both the president and Attorney General have repeatedly made public statements downplaying the abuses, while at the same time supporting the security forces that have carried out systematic violations.
I would add that it is very troubling that the government has repeatedly sought to blame its political opponents, or simply the opposition as a whole, for the violence without providing credible evidence. For example, the government accused Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, of being the “intellectual author” of the protest-related deaths on February 12. The Attorney General’s Office promptly sought his arrest for several alleged crimes—initially including homicide, a charge it dropped when video footage appeared showing security force members shooting at unarmed protesters. López has been held in pretrial detention on a military base for more than three months although no credible evidence has been made public to corroborate that he committed any crime. In early June, a provisional judge (ie. does not enjoy security of tenure) ruled López and two students accused of being the material authors of his alleged crimes would remain detained during their trial. (The two students were severely abused during their initial detention and subject to an array of serious due process violations.) Similarly, the Attorney General’s Office has also obtained an order to forbid opposition leader María Corina Machado to leave the country and arrest warrants for other opposition figures, while the Supreme Court has summarily tried and sentenced two opposition mayors to prison terms, in judicial proceedings that violated basic due process guarantees.
The initial role that Unasur played in promoting a dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition was a positive initiative. However, at this writing, the dialogue is stalled, and Unasur’s involvement has failed to deliver concrete results that could improve the human rights situation in the country.
In light of the guiding principles of Unasur, and international human rights obligations provided for in international treaties in force, to which Unasur member states are party, Unasur should urge the Venezuelan government to modify its record and adopt concrete measures to respect the fundamental rights of its citizens. For this purpose, we respectfully urge you to call on President Maduro and/or other competent authorities to:
- Order all security forces immediately to stop mistreatment and violence against protesters already in custody, and all other uses of unlawful force during crowd-control operations, and abide by international norms on the use of force;
- Order all security forces not to collaborate with or tolerate acts of violence or other illegal acts by armed pro-government gangs; and take steps to ensure disarmament of any group in possession of illegal weapons or engaged in illegal armed activity, as well as detain them when they commit crimes;
- Conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations and all acts of violence by citizens in the context of protests, independent of the political affiliation of the suspects or victims;
- Immediately and unconditionally release people who have been unlawfully detained for exercising their basic rights, and those who were improperly arrested in cases in which authorities have failed to present credible evidence of their alleged criminal responsibility;
- Refrain from all rhetoric that incites violence against protesters and journalists;
- Take steps to restore the independence of the judiciary, beginning with the Supreme Court; and
- Immediately agree to the outstanding visit requests by United Nations Special Rapporteurs; recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; and allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct in-country visit.
José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director, Americas Division
 Constitutive Treaty of the Union of South American Nations, preamble.
 For additional information on our research, please consult the “Methodology” section of the report.
 These cases are described in detail in the chapters “Illustrative Cases,” “Abuses in the Streets,” and “Abuses in Detention Facilities” of the report.
 For additional information, please read cases in the chapter “Abuses in Detention Facilities.”
 These cases are described in detail in the chapter “Abuses in the Street.”
 For additional information, please read Human Rights Watch’s reports “A Decade Under Chavez” (2008), and “Tightening the Grip” (2012).
 For additional information and sources, please read the sections “Fear of Reporting Abuses” and “Obstacles to Accountability” in the report’s summary.
 The abuses suffered by the two students, Marco Coello and Cristian Holdack, are described in the “Illustrative Cases” chapter of the report.