Venezuela is facing a human rights and humanitarian crisis. The Maduro administration enjoys tremendous concentration of power, which it has used to gradually erode human rights guarantees and checks on its own power. Opponents including anti-government demonstrators, critics, and opposition politicians have been arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted. Venezuelan groups identify over 600 detainees as political prisoners. Security forces have committed egregious abuses, including torture. The Supreme Court routinely fails to demonstrate any independence, endorsing government abuses and stripping the National Assembly of its powers. Severe shortages of medicine and food seriously undermine Venezuelans’ ability to secure adequate nutrition or access to healthcare.
Latest Updates on Venezuela's Crisis
For a timeline of the most recent events in Venezuela, specifically related to Venezuela’s compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, please click here.
Venezuelan Immigration to Ecuador
The political and humanitarian crisis hitting Venezuela has accelerated the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country, including those migrating to Ecuador. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 2016 and September 2017, approximately 236,000 Venezuelans entered Ecuador. About three-quarters continued their journey south, leaving a net migration of some 62,000 people into the country. The UNHCR has also reported that Ecuador has become both a destination and transit country for Venezuelans on their way to Peru and Chile. Ecuador’s Ministry of Interior reports that in 2016, 102,619 Venezuelan nationals entered the country and 79,008 left.
As of September 2017, over 1,500 Venezuelans had applied for asylum in Ecuador, with monthly claims peaking at 222 in August 2017, the UNHCR said.
In theory, Venezuelan migrants wishing to reside temporarily in Ecuador can apply for several different visas, including a special visa for citizens of UNASUR member states provided for in the February 2017 Human Mobility Law (Ley Orgánica de Movilidad Humana) that allows Venezuelans to live and work in Ecuador with minimal requirements. However, according to the Venezuelans in Ecuador Civil Association (Asociación Civil Venezolanos en el Ecuador), an organization founded in 2015 to provide support to Venezuelan migrants, the cost of a visa (ranging from about US$200 to about US$500 depending on the type) is an insurmountable impediment for most Venezuelan migrants given their precarious financial situation.
Below are accounts relayed to Human Rights Watch by Venezuelans who fled the crisis and are now living in or were recently passing through Quito:
Petra Sofía Vásquez Rodríguez, 30, is a social communicator and graphic designer who worked in Caracas as a manager for a large movie theater company. She left Venezuela in August 2017 due to the economic crisis and lack of access to medicine for her visual disability. Vásquez said she is able to see with only one eye, has had very limited vision in that eye since birth, and requires daily eyedrops for her condition. Starting in 2015, she said, it became much harder to find the drops in Venezuela, and she would use them on and off. In the six months before she fled Venezuela, she didn’t use them at all because she could no longer find them. In Ecuador, Vásquez does freelance work, managing social media accounts of companies and individuals. In Ecuador, she has been able to find and afford the eyedrops she needs, and is planning to move to Argentina as soon as she has the money to do so.
Carlos Miguel Machado, 23, arrived in Ecuador toward the end of 2016. Born in Valencia, Carabobo state, he specialized in marketing and worked for years for a large telecommunications company as part of its social responsibility team.
Machado told Human Rights Watch that he was forced to leave Venezuela because he could not find medicine that his wife needed after undergoing thyroid surgery. He said: “I had to travel far, go from pharmacy to pharmacy looking for the medicine, and I would not find it; and it is very expensive in the black market.” He originally left for Ecuador for just three months “to find the medicine and some money,” leaving his wife and children behind. But as the situation in Venezuela rapidly deteriorated, they decided that, instead, the entire family would travel by land through Colombia and join him in Ecuador in 2017.
Machado explained that, to fund the cost of the trip to Ecuador, he sold all of his belongings in Venezuela, except for his apartment because he wants “to go back to [his] country, [and does not] want to become estranged.” In Ecuador, he and his wife have engaged in informal work, including selling empanadas on the streets. When we asked his wife, who had worked as a graphic designer in Venezuela, if she had considered going back to her country, she replied: “Every day I think about returning to Venezuela. I keep the hope. But when we think about it further, what am I going to do there?”
Mercedes Arvelo López (pseudonym), a 51-year-old teacher, arrived in Quito in October 2017 with her nine-year-old daughter Rosalba (pseudonym). Arvelo told Human Rights Watch that her husband had “defected from chavismo” after having worked for the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro on intelligence matters for years. Since then, she said, they had received anonymous threats, unknown individuals had followed and shot at her husband, and intelligence agents had visited their home asking about her husband’s whereabouts.
They crossed the border into Colombia on foot, with the aim of reaching Peru. They applied for asylum in Colombia, but after several months without obtaining a response, they decided to go to Ecuador, also on foot. In Ecuador, the family also sought refugee status, according to official documentation reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Arvelo has received aid from CARITAS to feed her daughter, who had to leave her school, friends, and family behind. She applied for refugee status in Ecuador but after months without receiving a formal response from authorities and fearing deportation, she and her daughter moved to Peru, where they requested “humanitarian refugee status,” she told Human Rights Watch.
Detained for Providing Aid in Venezuela
On December 27, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello announced the detention of Jonatan Diniz, a Brazilian living in Los Angeles who was visiting Venezuela for a nongovernmental group that he directs, which provides food and aid to people in need. Diniz had been detained, Cabello said, for “belonging to a criminal organization with international reach.”
Cabello accused Diniz of using the organization as a “façade” to receive “dollars” and to “finance terrorists.” After Diniz spent nearly 10 days incarcerated at intelligence headquarters in Caracas, the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry was able to negotiate his release and departure from Venezuela.
Many others haven’t been so lucky in Venezuela, Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published in Folha. Without strong international pressure, 2018 may well be the year in which Venezuela’s government entrenches its repressive powers and the impunity it has enjoyed for terrible abuses, Taraciuk said.
Pregnant Teenager Killed Awaiting Food
On December 31, a member of the Bolivarian National Guard killed Alexandra Colopoy, 18, as she was standing in line to receive a pernil (a leg of pork traditionally served at Christmas in Venezuela), her husband said in a video posted on Twitter. The government had not provided pernil for everyone who received boxes with food items subject to government-controlled prices, and those distributing the food had organized a lottery to allocate available pork legs. Colopoy, who was five-months pregnant, was one of 15 lottery winners in her area. In a country facing severe shortages of food, this was a valuable opportunity to have access to protein, which is limited in many Venezuelans’ diet.
Colopoy’s husband and other witnesses said they had stood in line for hours when the Bolivarian National Guard arrived and told them to leave. One of the guardsmen, who was allegedly drunk, opened fire without warning, they said, killing Colopoy and wounding her brother-in-law.
That day, after news of the killing went viral, a Bolivarian National Guard sergeant was detained in relation to this case and was going to be charged with several crimes, including homicide, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Earlier in December, several protests broke out in Venezuela after the government failed to deliver pernil that it had promised to include in boxes with food subject to government-set prices. On December 28, President Nicolás Maduro said authorities should not “lower their guard” in the face of “violent and terrorist acts”—referring to the protests—and would apply “a firm hand” in these cases.
Maduro blamed Portugal for “sabotaging” the distribution of pernil. Portugal responded it had no participation in the deal, and the Portuguese company that was supposed to deliver the pork legs said that the Venezuelan government has yet to pay for food it shipped to the country in 2016.
Testimonio esposo de la joven Alexandra Conopoi, asesinada por un GNB: “Ella salió sorteada” con medio Pernil. Solo llegaron 15 perniles para 60 familias. Hicieron cola toda la noche y en la madrugada el guardia los mando a irse y comenzó a disparar. “Estaba borracho” pic.twitter.com/iXd4RdoNyH
At 11 a.m. on January 3, members of a municipal police force in Valencia, Carabobo state, detained Ronald Cevilla Guedez, 25, and Erika Palacios Alfonzo, 41, while they were protesting against the government. The detainees were part of a group of 30 people who had allegedly partially closed a road and burned five tires in front of the Naguanagua mayor’s office, according to a transcript of a police report reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Cevilla and Palacios were taken before a judge on January 4. During the hearing, a prosecutor charged them with possessing explosive substances, public incitement to commit crimes, obstructing public roads, and “instigating hatred”—a crime provided for in a law adopted in November 2017 by the pro-government Constituent Assembly. The vague and overbroad language of the law prohibits political parties that “promote fascism, hatred, and intolerance,” and imposes prison sentences of up to 20 years on those who “encourage, promote, or incite hatred.”
According to the Penal Forum lawyer who defended Cevilla and Palacios, their alleged “violence” and criminal instigation of hatred consisted of shouting “Damn Nicolás Maduro!” and verbally insulting the officers. The police report states the officers found seven home-made Molotov cocktails, two bottles with flammable substances, 12 fireworks, and a mortar shell in the area without specifying that they were in the detainees’ possession. Cevilla and Palacios deny that the explosives were theirs.
After the arrests, agents of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services searched the detainees’ homes, a credible source told Human Rights Watch. Family members present during the searches told the source that the agents did not show a judicial warrant and stole personal belongings, including toothpaste, while conducting them.
The court accepted the charges and ordered the pre-trial detention of Cevilla and Palacios while the criminal investigation takes place.
#4Ene En #Carabobo estrenan con los dos manifestantes de ayer en #Naguanagua "Ley Constitucional contra el Odio, por la Convivencia Pacífica y la Tolerancia"
The New York Times: “As Venezuela Collapses Children Are Dying of Hunger”
On December 17, The New York Times published an article on the severe humanitarian crisis ravaging Venezuela and its effect on children. The piece is based on 5 months of research tracking 21 public hospitals in Venezuela where “doctors are seeing record numbers of children with severe malnutrition” and “hundreds have died”. It includes harrowing photographs by Meridith Kohut capturing the suffering of those affected and argues that though the Venezuelan government is aware of the situation, it has “tried to cover up the extent of the crisis by enforcing a near-total blackout of health statistics, and by creating a culture in which doctors are often afraid to register cases and deaths that may be associated with the government’s failures”. Indeed, a few days ago President Nicolas Maduro had reiterated the government’s decision to decline any offer of humanitarian aid stating that Venezuela ‘is not a country of beggars’.
“Sometimes they die in your arms just from dehydration.” Children in Venezuela are dying of malnutrition, but the government won’t admit it. https://t.co/HoTjj89wUH
High-level officials responsible for the 2017 crackdown
Jailing a University Professor
On December 1, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Venezuelan government to protect the life and physical integrity of Santiago Guevara, a 66-year-old economist and university professor who was detained by intelligence agents in February.
Intelligence agents detained Guevara on February 21 in his home in Valencia, Carabobo state, and took him to the General Directorate of Military Intelligence (DGCIM) headquarters in Caracas, according to Espacio Público, a Venezuelan rights group that monitors free speech. The day before, Guevara had met with General Raúl Isaías Baduel, a prominent government critic, in a bakery in Valencia, as part of a research project to draft a book on Venezuela’s transition to democracy, a lawyer with Espacio Público told Human Rights Watch. Guevara had previously published a series of articles in Venezuelan blogs criticizing the government’s economic policies.
On April 9, military prosecutors charged Guevara with treason and instigating rebellion. The document outlining the charges, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said Guevara had participated in “several clandestine meetings with the purpose of destabilizing the national government.” It claimed Guevara had been in meetings with students from the University of Carabobo, where he taught, and “military personnel” to create a “civic-military movement” and a new political party that would replace the opposition umbrella group, Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD), and would be headed by Baduel.
Military prosecutors argued Guevara had coordinated the work with several universities and the alleged “destabilization plan” included calling for “civil disobedience” and “massive mobilization of different sectors, with special emphasis in students, a movement that would carry out prolonged protests and street demonstrations” in what they called “an active fight in the streets, non-violent, but overwhelming.”
Guevara was taken before a military court for his initial hearing in May, but the preliminary hearing, in which the judge should confirm or reject the charges to determine if the trial moves forward, has been repeatedly postponed. Guevara’s lawyers have unsuccessfully tried to move the case to civilian courts.
Guevara is currently being held at DGCIM headquarters in Caracas. He suffers several medical problems, including hypertension, according to a March 2017 medical report reviewed by Human Rights Watch. His health condition has deteriorated given his limited access to adequate nutrition and medical care while in detention, according to the lawyer with Espacio Público.
The Venezuelan government is tightening its stranglehold on the country’s basic institutions of democracy at a terrifying speed. Without stronger measures by influential governments, the already grievous damage suffered by Venezuelan democratic institutions and victims of state violence may become irreparable. It is not too late to stop that from happening, Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published today by the World Policy Journal.
The “Polichacao Case”: 14 Detainees Held by Venezuela’s Intelligence Services
On November 27, Tarek William Saab, the attorney general appointed by Maduro’s Constituent Assembly after it fired Luisa Ortega Díaz, stated that “anyone who has a release order signed and dully sealed by the court has to be freed.”
Saab was responding to a question about the case of 14 police officers, 12 men and 2 women, who belong to the municipal police force of Chacao, a municipality in Caracas. The officers, who had been accused by then interior minister Gustavo González López of being involved in the murder of journalist Ricardo Duran on January 19, 2016, were detained on June 20 that year. González López is currently the head of the Bolivarian Service of National Intelligence (SEBIN).
Duran was one of the most high-profile pro-government journalists at the time. He had served as chief of communications of the National Assembly (then controlled by the government official party) and had been an anchor of the official television station, Venezolana de Television. At the time of his death he was head of communications of the Caracas government under Jorge Rodríguez, a Maduro regime supporter.
Prosecutors assigned to the case found no evidence to incriminate the 14 police officers and in early August requested a court to order their release. A judge signed the release order on August 8, 2016, but, 16 months later, the 14 officers remain arbitrarily imprisoned at SEBIN headquarters in Caracas called “El Helicoide.”
The youngest of the group is 26-year-old Angel Alfonso Sánchez, who inside El Helicoide was reportedly severely beaten with a board by SEBIN agents in front of the rest of the group. Angel’s sister, Marilyn Sánchez, told Human Rights Watch that Angel thought he would die while he was being beaten and that he was unable to stand up for weeks after the beating.
In a letter reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the detainees claim that several of them have been subjected to different torture techniques in SEBIN headquarters while being interrogated to force them to incriminate themselves in Duran’s killing. The torture has included asphyxiation with plastic bags that smelled as if they had insecticide in them, being hanged, and being subjected to electric shocks. Family members who saw them claim they all have severe physical and psychological scars from the abuses, according to their lawyer. Family members are extremely concerned about their health, which they claim continues to deteriorate rapidly due to the appalling detention conditions.
On June 24, several of the detainees began a hunger strike. The officers said that in retaliation, SEBIN authorities placed other prisoners with them in the room where the strike was taking place, which is particularly dangerous considering that the hunger strikers are police officers. SEBIN agents also placed containers with excrement and urine in the room and denied the detainees access to the bathroom, according to the official twitter account kept by the detained police officers’ family members and lawyers. The officers have ended the hunger strike.
One of the lawyers who represents the 14 detainees told Human Rights Watch that the courts have rejected every motion filed in their favor. The lawyer added “it all boils down to this: every time the clerk goes to SEBIN to deliver the [August 2016] release order, he is informed that the Director of SEBIN has not authorized that the order be received.”
Human Rights Watch has denounced the fact that dozens of other prisoners in Venezuela have remained arbitrarily detained, despite having a release order issued by a court, in clear violation of Venezuelan and international law.
The government of @NicolasMaduro is responsible for the physical integrity of opposition mayor @Daniel_Ceballos, who's been in isolation for 50+ days & arbitrarily detained for 3+ years without being tried by any court. He should be immediately and unconditionally released. https://t.co/lnN4ueqEhu
UK Political Leaders Still Defending the Indefensible in Venezuela
Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn Have Questions to Answer
By David Mepham
Events in Latin America rarely generate much political attention or debate in Britain. But new evidence of deepening repression in Venezuela should force Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, and the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to examine their different, but misguided policies towards Venezuela.
The report contains detailed testimony of how Venezuelan security forces brutally beat detainees and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, and sexual assault. In some cases, security forces detonated teargas canisters in small cells where detainees were being held, and denied them food or water. Sometimes they were forced to eat food that was deliberately tainted with excrement, cigarette ash or insects.
Security forces and armed pro-government groups, called “colectivos” in Venezuela, have caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. In many cases, they have shot water cannons, teargas, and pellets at close range, in ways apparently intended to inflict painful injuries.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to understand why the May government is providing £160,000 to train some of the country’s police and security services. When this story first broke in August, the UK Foreign Office said the policy was, “kept under review.” But in a context of rapidly worsening repression in Venezuela, it is surely untenable for the British government to provide this kind of support while at the same time failing to speak out forcefully against rights violations and torture. The UK should be stepping up pressure on Maduro’s government, including through targeted sanctions.
Jeremy Corbyn’s recent positions on Venezuela have also been pusillanimous and wrong. In a September 30 media interview, Corbyn repeatedly refused to condemn the repressive policies of Maduro. This suggests his longstanding support for an avowedly anti-capitalist government in Caracas is blinding him to the reality of stepped-up and systematic repression there.
While this is not the first crackdown on dissent under Maduro, the scope and severity of this repression has reached levels unseen in Venezuela in recent memory. May’s weakness and complacency and Corbyn’s faux solidarity are equally misplaced and should both be jettisoned.
What's it like to investigate torture in Venezuela
Venezuela is facing an acute human rights and humanitarian crisis. The Maduro administration has concentrated its power and eroded respect for human rights. Critics and opposition figures have been arbitrarily arrested, prosecuted, and in some cases subjected to abuses – including torture. Tens of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, escaping political persecution and shortages of food, medicine and other medical supplies. Human Rights Watch researchers have not been able to operate openly in Venezuela since representatives were arrested and expelled from the country in 2008, but have continued to document the wide-ranging abuses there. Claudia Núñez interviewed senior researcher Tamara Taraciuk Broner about her recent investigation into the detention and abuse of hundreds of Venezuelans during this year’s crackdown on dissent.
New HRW/Foro Penal report on 2017 crackdown on dissent
The Venezuelan government has systematically used brutal treatment, including torture, against anti-government protesters and political opponents, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum, a Venezuelan rights group, said in a report released this week.
Release Order for Colombians Detained in Venezuela
On November 21, a Venezuelan judge ordered the Bolivarian National Police to unconditionally release 61 Colombian citizens who were detained in August 2016 in Caracas, arguing that “they were not caught while committing a crime” and there was “no arrest warrant” in their criminal file.
On September 1, 2016, President Nicolás Maduro had announced that 92 people had been detained in a “Colombian paramilitary camp” close to the presidential palace in Caracas, as part of the “Operation to Liberate the People” (OLP)—a series of police and military raids launched in 2015 with the alleged purpose of combatting insecurity. Some detainees were picked up while they were walking down the street, told they would be deported, and then jailed, according to Colombian press reports. Colombian authorities have reportedly sent more than twenty diplomatic notes to the Venezuelan government about this case.
Human Rights Watch and the Venezuelan human rights group Provea have documented widespread allegations of abuse during these OLP operations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, forced evictions, the destruction of homes and the arbitrary deportation of Colombian nationals often accused without evidence of having links to “paramilitaries.”
As of November 25, the 61 Colombian citizens remained behind bars, their lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
ICG report: Hunger by Default
On November 23, the International Crisis Group published a briefing paper titled “Venezuela: Hunger by Default” that argues that “economic mismanagement, corruption, and dwindling reserves have forced Venezuela into penury and now into missed payments and partial default on its debts.” The paper argues that a full-blown default could add an escalating humanitarian emergency to the country’s economic and political crisis. Many Venezuelans are currently facing severe shortages of medicine, medical supplies, and food that severely undermine their ability to provide their families with access to an adequate nutrition and basic medical care. The briefing paper recommends that the Venezuelan government restore powers to the opposition-led National Assembly so it can approve a debt-restructuring package.
UN Security Council Members meet to address Venezuela’s Crisis
Today’s meeting of UN Security Council members on the Venezuela crisis provides a unique opportunity to focus attention on the widespread abuses the government of President Nicolás Maduro is committing. Without strong, multilateral pressure, the human rights and humanitarian crisis will only get worse, José Miguel Vivanco said in a dispatch published today.
On November 13, the European Union adopted sanctions against Venezuela: it imposed an arms embargo on material that might be used for internal repression, and a legal framework for a travel ban and assets freeze of Venezuelans implicated in human rights violations and “those involved in the non-respect of democratic principles or the rule of law” in the country.
The European Union “calls upon the government [of Venezuela] to urgently restore democratic legitimacy, including through free and fair elections, and on the opposition to continue engaging in a united manner towards a negotiated solution to the current crisis.”
The European Union decision follow new sanctions imposed in early November by Canada on Venezuelans implicated in abuses and corruption, and the expansion of the list of Venezuelans sanctioned by the United States government.
The “Hate Law”
On November 8, the Constituent Assembly adopted a Law Against Hatred and in favor of Peaceful Living and Tolerance. The law forbids political parties that “promote fascism, hatred, and intolerance,” as well as “messages of intolerance and hatred” published through media outlets or social media, according to official sources.
The ‘anti-hate’ law passed today in Venezuela seeks to end free speech in social media — a key space for Venezuelans to express themselves in a country with shrinking free speech avenues https://t.co/6UhGOtHzpl
Refusing the Humanitarian Release of a Detained Student
On June 12, members of the Command 435 of Bolivarian National Guard detained Carlos Julio Velasco Marín, an 18-year-old high school student and first aid volunteer, in Caracas. At the time of his detention, he was walking not far from the San Ignacio mall in Chacao, which is located at some distance of a building that belongs to the judiciary that had just been set on fire by unknown individuals, his parents told Human Rights Watch. According to the parents, Velasco told them that while in detention, GNB agents hit him twice with a metal rod on his spine, which he said caused excruciating pain.
On June 16, Velasco was brought before a special terrorism tribunal with 17 others who did not know each other. All had been detained in different circumstances that same day, according to a lawyer who was present at the hearing. Some of them, including Velasco, were charged with several crimes, including public instigation to commit crimes, holding explosives, and association to commit crimes. The judge rejected those charges, and charged them with terrorism and attempted intentional homicide, despite the fact that the prosecutor had not requested such charges, the lawyer said.
In a subsequent hearing on September 8, in which the prosecutor was supposed to formally accuse detainees, the same judge decided to drop those charges and ordered the prosecutor to re-file new ones within 30 days. At time of writing, that has not happened, but Velasco remains behind bars, the lawyer said.
Velasco needs urgent testicular surgery and in detention he does not have access to pre-surgery tests nor adequate treatment for other medical conditions, including hypertension, his mother told Human Rights Watch in late October. Velasco also has problems with his kidneys, due to poor water conditions in detention, his lawyer said. Human Rights Watch had access to medical reports that describe his medical condition and requests urgent treatment.
The defense team has asked the judge to authorize his conditional release so he may obtain adequate medical treatment, but at time of writing, the judge has not taken a decision on the matter.
The European Union Sakharov Prize
On October 26, the European Parliament awarded the 2017 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Venezuela’s National Assembly and “all political prisoners including in the Venezuelan Penal Forum list, represented by Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma, Daniel Ceballos, Yon Goicoechea, Lorent Saleh, Alfredo Ramos, and Andrea González.”
On October 15, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect governors in all 23 states of the country.
As with previous elections, the playing field leading up to the elections was far from even. Members of the opposition have been arbitrarily disqualified from running for office, including several of its leaders. There are also credible allegations of political discrimination in government jobs, which undermine the ability of many Venezuelans to express their political views freely. Due to the lack of judicial independence in Venezuela, any irregularity in the electoral process seems destined to remain unchecked. The combination of all of these elements paints a picture of an election which is far from being free and fair.
This time, President Nicolás Maduro said that every person who voted would be legitimizing his Constituent Assembly, a body with super powers that has already demonstrated uncontested loyalty to the president. After the elections, Maduro said that any governor who did not take an oath before the Constituent Assembly and “subordinate” him or herself to it, would not be able to take office.
The president of the National Electoral Council, which is composed of four out of five government supporters, announced the results of the election, giving the government a massive electoral win: the government party won 18 of the 23 positions being voted on, with the opposition only winning 5. The opposition challenged the results and claimed the election was fraudulent.
Key international actors, including OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a group of 11 Latin American governments and Canada known as the Lima 12, the United States, and European countries including France and Spain, have expressed concerns about the polls.
The international pressure to restore democracy in Venezuela—including through free and fair elections with adequate independent oversight, but also with an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and accountability for abuses committed by security forces—must continue.
On October 11, the Canadian nongovernmental organization International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO) and the Venezuelan group Citizen Action Against AIDS (Acción Ciudadana contra el SIDA, ACCSI) published this report with updated data and policy recommendations to address Venezuela’s health crisis.
Official data cited in the report—based on epidemiological bulletins published by a former minister of health who was subsequently fired—indicate an increase of 76 percent in malaria cases reported in Venezuela during one first week of December 2016 compared to the same week a year earlier. A July 2017 health bulletin leaked to ICASO indicated that the number of malaria cases for 2017 until then was 184,225, which is 63 percent higher than the same period in 2016.
A public letter published by indigenous leaders from 25 Joti villages states that in 2016 alone there were nearly 4,000 malaria episodes in one village of 900 inhabitants. The letter states that people split limited medications to distribute them among patients. The increase of malaria cases also appears to be having an impact on neighboring countries, such as Brazil and Colombia, which are seeing more imported malaria cases from Venezuela, the report says.
The report describes stock-outs of antiretroviral therapy (ARTs) in Venezuela and suggests there may be a link between such stock-outs and UNAIDS statistics that show an increase in AIDS-related deaths (from 1900 in 2011 to 3300 in 2015), as well as with a decrease in the number of deaths prevented by ARTs (from 3500 in 2011 to 2700 in 2015). According to the report, HIV prevalence is particularly high among the Warao indigenous group.
In addition, the report says that there’s an “almost complete lack of access to tuberculosis screening” for vulnerable populations, including prisoners and indigenous communities, and cites experts who shared unpublished information that suggests a rapid increase in the number of new cases.
All of this is happening in a context of severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies, which have also been documented by Human Rights Watch. The report includes an image of a memo circulated in a government-run hospital instructing staff to reuse “spinal needles, epidural needles, intubation tubes, and endotracheal tubes”—a practice that can pose significant health risks to patients.
In May 2017, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria—a UN body that provides aid to countries in need—expressed concern about the “resurgence of malaria, shortages of critical commodities for HIV and TB, and broader health crisis in Venezuela and its impact on the region” but noted Venezuela was not eligible for Global Fund financing and called for a coordinated regional response. It held that “if possible” it would “support a regional response” to Venezuela’s health crisis.
The ICASO-ACCSI report calls for a regional comprehensive response to be urgently developed and implemented, and calls on The Global Fund to adopt stronger and more effective leadership on this matter.
For information on ICASO's work on the Venezuelan crisis, and ways you can help, click here.
FAO, PAHO Statistics on Increasing Hunger in Venezuela
A recently released report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) stated that six countries in the Americas showed an increase in 2014-2016 in the number of undernourished people compared to 2013-2015. Venezuela was, according to the report, the “most significant” case: the percentage of people undernourished increased by 3.9 percent. The other five countries—Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Granada, and Peru—saw increases of up to 0.3 percent.
This means that, according to FAO and PAHO, the total number of undernourished people in Venezuela in 2014-2016 was 4.1 million—that is, 1.3 million more than in 2013-2105, and more than 10 percent of the population, which is estimated to be 31 million.
On October 2, members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN) arrested 53-year-old Lenny Josefina Martínez González, according to the local human rights group Funpaz. Martínez, who works as an administrative assistant at the Pastor Oropeza hospital in the city of Barquisimeto, Lara State, is allegedly responsible for having taken pictures of several women in labor at the hospital.
The pictures, which went viral on social media, show women giving birth while laying down on a row of metal chairs of the hospital’s waiting room, accompanied by medical personnel. In one of the photos, a woman is seen cradling her newborn while still laying on a row of chairs, while another woman lies on the set of chairs next to her. In another photograph, two pregnant, naked women are also seen laying on the chairs.
Several hospital employees, including two medical students, were detained and interrogated by SEBIN agents and investigative police officers days before to establish who had taken the pictures, according to local press reports.
A Lara legislator tweeted on October 4 that Martínez was detained at the SEBIN headquarters in Barquisimeto. There is no publicly available information on the specific crimes Martínez is being charged with.
Though the national government confirmed the veracity of the pictures, the Vice-Minister of Health, Linda Amaro, blamed the opposition governor of the State of Lara, Henry Falcon, who in turn criticized the Maduro administration.
The graphic pictures capture the severity of the health crisis in the country.
UN Human Rights Council Confronts Venezuela
At the UN Human Rights Council session that ended last week, member states, including from Latin America, spoke up clearly and forcefully about the profound human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, placing the issue on the council’s agenda in unprecedented ways. But the real work still lies ahead—the challenge now is to keep up the multilateral pressure on the Venezuelan government, said Tamara Taraciuk Broner in a dispatch published today.
Jailing a Legislator’s Brother
Around 1 p.m. on September 25, a group of at least 12 armed agents from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN), wearing ski masks, tried to burst into the inauguration of a children’s soup kitchen in Vargas State, in which opposition legislator José Manuel Olivares was participating, Olivares told Human Rights Watch. Olivares said that was there with part of his team, his wife, and his brother, and that members of the community stopped the agents from entering the soup kitchen.
Olivares left with his wife in her car, and his brother, Juan Carlos Marquina, 42, was driving Olivares’ car, which their mother had bought for him in 2012, he said. As they were leaving, the SEBIN agents stopped the vehicles, forced everyone out, and searched the cars. Olivares said an agent handcuffed Marquina, whom they recognized as Olivares’ brother, and detained him.
That day, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello said that security forces had stopped a caravan of cars in Vargas State that had passed through a check point “by chance,” and that Marquina had been detained because he was driving a stolen car, according to news reports.
Repeatedly over the course of more than two days, Olivares’ mother visited both SEBIN headquarters in Caracas and was told that Marquina was not being held there. Olivares and his family did not know about Marquina’s whereabouts until the evening of September 27, when he was brought before a judge. His lawyer was able to see him minutes before the hearing, in which he was charged with having forged documents—they claimed Olivares’ car’s paperwork had been altered prior to its purchase by Olivares’ mother, Olivares said.
Marquina is currently being held at the SEBIN headquarters called Helicoide and his family has not been able to see him, according to Olivares.
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Opposition Mayor Behind Bars
On July 28, the Supreme Court sentenced Alfredo Ramos, mayor of Irribarren municipality in Lara State, to 15 months in prison and disqualified him from running for elected office. The court argued that Ramos had failed to comply with an earlier injunction it had issued ordering the mayor to ensure people did not block roads in his municipality, and to remove any obstacles that prevented citizens from moving around freely. The decision was adopted after a 10-hour long hearing in which the court was responsible for both the “accusation” and “sentencing.” The court’s ruling cannot be appealed. The Supreme Court issued a judicial order to detain Ramos and stated he should be held at intelligence headquarters in Caracas.
Ramos, who had been notified that the hearing would take place that day, decided not to attend because he did not recognize the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to adopt such a decision, his wife, Carmen Jiménez de Ramos, told Human Rights Watch. The municipality’s legal counsel attended on his behalf, and Ramos found out about the court’s ruling via the court’s official Twitter account, she said.
Five minutes after the Supreme Court tweeted that it had sentenced Ramos, several official vehicles from the Bolivarian Services of National Intelligence (SEBIN) parked at the entrance of the municipality, Ramos’ wife and daughter, as well as two other witnesses, told Human Rights Watch. At least 20 uniformed and armed men, most of whom had their faces covered, burst into Ramos’ office. One of them stood on top of a desk holding a teargas canister, and told one of Ramos’ daughters, who was there with her one-year-old son, to leave, the four witnesses said.
Ramos refused to go with them until they showed a judicial order for his arrest, which the officers did not have, the four witnesses said. The agents eventually forced Ramos into an official vehicle and drove him to SEBIN headquarters in Barquisimeto, the state capital. His wife told Human Rights Watch that she was allowed to stay with him for several hours, until officers told her she could go home to pick up medicines and clothes for Ramos. When she returned, she was no longer able to see him, she said.
At 7 am on July 29, Jiménez was told that Ramos had been transferred to the airport, but only learned that he had arrived in Caracas when she received a picture of him there from an anonymous source, she said.
Ramos was unable to see his family for 26 days, nor his lawyers for 32 days. Every time they tried to visit, they were told that the director “had not authorized the visit,” his wife and daughter said.
When Ramos’ family finally saw him, he told them that he had spent two weeks in an office without any windows, sitting in a chair all day. Ramos was only allowed to lie down at night, on a matt on the floor. He is now being held in another cell with six people, and no bathroom, running water, or windows.
Ramos’ family has been able to see him four times—each time in a room with a guard present and they claim their conversations were being taped. The lawyers saw him twice—once in a room with other inmates and lawyers, and the other in front of a guard.
During the initial days of his detention, the family learned that Ramos, who has hypertension according to medical reports reviewed by Human Rights Watch, was having health complications through a handwritten note that he gave the family of another inmate detained with him. A cardiologist who visited Ramos on August 31, after an acute episode of hypertension, told the family that Ramos was in a delicate condition that required special testing, but the family was never given access to his medical report. Ramos has not had access to such tests, Jiménez said.
Updated report on Children’s Malnutrition by Cáritas
Cáritas Venezuela recently released a report, updating an earlier study, that documents increasing levels of child malnutrition in the country since February 2017. The new report is based on the evaluation of children under 5 years of age in Caracas and the states of Miranda, Vargas, and Zulia between April and August 2017.
The most recent statistics indicate that 68 percent of those surveyed had some degree of nutritional deficit or were at risk of a deficit, with 14.5 percent suffering from moderate and severe malnutrition (acute global malnutrition)—up from 10.2 percent in February. Similarly, the report found that 21 percent had mild malnutrition—up from 12 percent in February—and 32.5 percent were at risk of malnutrition and were already showing symptoms—up from 26 percent in February.
Additionally, in 71 percent of surveyed homes, residents reported needing to eat worse or less, and 41 percent of families said they had to resort to asking or “begging” for food or having to find it in places where food is discarded.
The Venezuelan government has continued to deny the existence of a humanitarian crisis in the country. Most recently, former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez, who currently presides over the National Constituent Assembly, stated: “In Venezuela there is no hunger … Here, we don’t have a humanitarian crisis, what we have is love.”
In mid-August, Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly created a Truth, Justice and Peace Commission to “contribute to the construction of a justice system based on peace.” The commission’s purpose is to “investigate political violence that occurred in the country” and it’s headed by former foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez.
The commission’s actions, however, appear to be very far from seeking “peace” or establishing the “truth” of what is happening in Venezuela. One of the Constituent Assembly’s members said that they would evaluate “quickly all the claims about treason” and impose “the necessary sanctions so it does not happen again.”
Meanwhile, despite overwhelming evidence—including a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—that security forces have used force excessively to disperse anti-government demonstrations and are responsible, together with armed pro-government gangs, for unlawful killings, Rodríguez said on television on September 18 that Venezuelan security forces had acted “in strict compliance” with the law during the protests. She stated that any rogue agents that carried out “isolated and individual acts” that may be “excesses” could be held responsible, but “the possibility that there may have been superior orders to commit abuses during the demonstrations was completely discarded.”
“Therefore, the actions of security forces are beyond reproach,” Rodríguez concluded.
On September 17, Carlos Andrés García, a former legislator of the Justice First (Primero Justicia) opposition party in the State of Apure, died while in detention, the party reported. Security forces arrested García when intelligence agents searched his home on December 16, 2016, during anti-government demonstrations linked to the official decision to take 100-bolivares bills out of circulation, according to press reports. García was later accused of illegally having large sums of cash, which the party says were planted. After his arrest, he was held at the National Bolivarian Intelligence Services (SEBIN) headquarters in the city of Guasdualito, State of Apure.
According to Primero Justicia, García suffered a cerebrovascular attack in his cell and was denied medical treatment. He was transferred to a hospital only when there was “no possibility to do anything to improve his health,” the party reported on Twitter. A judge allowed García to be transferred to house arrest two days prior to his death, but SEBIN never executed the order.
According to local press reports and the president of an association of local legislators, García had been facing medical problems for a month.
On September 13, during a televised cabinet meeting, President Nicolás Maduro and Freddy Bernal, the minister of agriculture, discussed the government’s plan to call on Venezuelans to breed rabbits as a source of protein, in response to sanctions by the Trump administration and the “economic war” waged by foreigners. Bernal said that to win the “economic war” it was necessary to carry out a “radio, press, TV, cartoon” campaign to explain Venezuelans that rabbits were not pets. In response to Maduro’s question about what had happened in the initial stages of the “Rabbit Plan” during which they distributed rabbits to local communities, Bernal responded that many Venezuelans had named the rabbits, put little bows on them, and took them to bed with them.
While Maduro, Bernal, and the rest of the cabinet laugh on television, many Venezuelans face severe shortages of food every day that are making it extremely difficult for them to adequately feed their families.
An article in English on the incident is available here, and you can watch the taped meeting here:
Thousands of Venezuelans Flee to Brazil
The deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and the increasingly authoritarian turn of its government are forcing more and more Venezuelans to flee into neighboring Brazil. From January to June, 7,600 Venezuelans requested asylum in Brazil, compared with 4 in all of 2010, according to data provided to Human Rights Watch by the Ministry of Justice. CONARE, Brazil’s federal refugee agency, has been unable to cope with such an avalanche: more than 98 percent of requests since 2010 are still pending.
As a better means to respond to the inflow from Venezuela, in March Brazilian authorities approved a resolution allowing Venezuelans to apply for a two-year residency permit. In August, a federal judge exempted poor Venezuelans from paying the US$100 application fee, which had prevented many from requesting a permit. Federal Police in Roraima—the Brazilian state that borders Venezuela—told Human Rights Watch that they received requests for the temporary permit from 413 Venezuelans in August.
Jailing an(other) Activist
On July 6, members of the Bolivarian National Police detained Carlos Julio Rojas, a journalist and activist who collaborates with two nongovernmental organizations that organize residents of certain Caracas neighborhoods, as he was walking down the street in Caracas. Rojas told Human Rights Watch that the agents stopped him and, after he gave them his ID and press credentials, said they had an arrest warrant for him and forced him into a police car.
Once inside the car, Rojas heard a voice on speaker phone, which he recognized as that of Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol, saying: “I want Carlos Julio’s cellphone.” The officers took the phone, and he never saw it again, Rojas said.
Rojas was taken from one place to another for hours—a practice called “spinning around” or “ruletear” in Venezuela—until he was taken to a police station where he was placed in a 2x2 cell with no bathroom or natural light, commonly known as the “little tiger” (tigrito). Officers later forced Rojas out and into an office in what appears to have been an attempt to frame him: there were several teargas canisters on a table in the office and officers beat him until they managed to take a picture of him beside the canisters, Rojas said. The picture that was finally taken shows Rojas’ back, and not his face, which had bruises, according to Rojas.
Rojas says he spent three days in prison, until he was taken before a military court on July 10. Only then was he able to see his family and lawyer, with whom he could only speak for five minutes before the hearing. Rojas was accused of throwing teargas canisters at a Red Cross installation, and charged with rebellion, treason, and stealing military objects, he said. Rojas told Human Rights Watch that the time prosecutors gave for the incident at the Red Cross installation waswas after he had already been detained. A military judge nonetheless ordered his continued detention, this time at the Ramo Verde military prison.
While being held, Rojas repeatedly tried to draw attention to poor detention conditions in Ramo Verde through comments he or other inmates made to visitors to the prison. In response, the prison director sanctioned him various times and sent him to a 2m x 2m isolation cell with no natural light, where he spent a total of 21 days. Rojas claims the prison director once sanctioned him for refusing to sign a document falsely incriminating him in instigating a prison riot in Ramo Verde. When he was not in the isolation cell, he slept in a room with another 115 prisoners, with only about 40 mattresses shared between them and only two toilets and a single shower. Rojas said they received limited and bad quality food; he estimates that they got 60 grams of food per meal.
When his mother and girlfriend managed to visit, they were stripped naked and prison guards searched their bodies before allowing them to enter.
On August 24, Rojas was taken before a judge for the preliminary hearing in which prosecutors are supposed to charge detainees with crimes. Even though the military prosecutor did not charge him with any crimes, the military judge nonetheless ruled that Rojas would be subject to precautionary measures—which are typically adopted, under Venezuelan law, to ensure that a person accused of committing a crime appears before a court. Rojas said he must now present himself before the military court every 30 days, cannot talk to the media about his case, and cannot participate in “political meetings for the purpose of engaging in conspiracy.”
“Being a journalist and a social activist makes you a criminal,” Rojas told Human Rights Watch.
HRW statement at the Human Rights Council
In a statement delivered on September 12 in Geneva, Human Rights Watch said that UN Human Rights Council leadership is needed in Yemen, Venezuela, China, Myanmar, and Philippines. Specifically on Venezuela, the statement says:
"We welcome the High Commissioner’s recent report on the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Instead of addressing the human rights situation on its merits, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela yesterday dismissed all such reports as “lies.” A country that can’t admit it has human rights problems definitely has human rights problems. More than 115 NGOs, including 81 from Venezuela, yesterday called on the Council to address the human rights situation in the country as a matter of priority. We urge the High Commissioner to keep the Council regularly informed, including through an intersessional briefing prior to the March session."
Jailing an Opposition Mayor’s Son
On July 30, dozens of security agents from the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services, and members of armed pro-government groups called “colectivos” burst into the home of Omar Lares, the mayor of the Campo Elías municipality in Mérida state, Lares and Ramona Rangel Colmenares, his wife, told Human Rights Watch. Rangel Colmenares said that a day earlier, when she was in Lares’ mother’s home across the street from their house, she saw a series of Bolivarian National Guard armored vehicles drive by, and heard a voice through a loudspeaker say, “Mayor, here we are!”
On May 16, the Supreme Court had issued an injunction ordering Lares to ensure people did not block roads in his municipality, and to remove any obstacles that prevented citizens from moving around freely. Several other mayors who had been issued similar injunctions were later subject to summary proceedings before the Supreme Court, after which the court—which was responsible for both the “accusation” and “sentencing”—sanctioned them to 15 months in prison and politically disqualifying them from running for office.
When the officers arrived on July 30, they banged loudly on the door, Rangel Colmenares said. She told one of her sons to lock it, but immediately heard shots. Lares, Rangel Colmenares, and their two youngest children ran out through the back door. The parents said they were able to escape with their 13-year-old son, but that officers detained their 23-year-old son, Juan Pedro Lares Rangel, who has dual Venezuelan-Colombian nationality. Their eldest daughter, who is 26, was not at home when the officers arrived.
The officers forced Juan Pedro to kneel on the ground together with an employee of the Lares family, the employee later said in an audio recording that Rangel Colmenares shared with Human Rights Watch. He said that the officers handcuffed them, and told them they could shoot them anytime “because no one was watching.” He said that they also threatened to spray both of them with gasoline and set them on fire “if they did not tell them where the firearms where.” They also placed a firearm against Juan Pedro’s head, threatened to kill him “if he didn’t tell the truth,” and then hit him on his neck with it.
They let the employee go, and drove Juan Pedro away in an official vehicle belonging to the intelligence services, Rangel Colmenares told Human Rights Watch. Juan Pedro was first held at the intelligence headquarters in Mérida, before being transferred to their offices in Caracas, called “Helicoide.”
Before leaving, the officers stole money, a television set, a cellphone, a motorcycle, and food, according to Lares and the employee.
Rangel Colmenares went several times to the Helicoide, but did not receive any official word on why he was being held. The only information she received was from an officer who did not identify himself, who told her Juan Pedro was a “witness” without specifying what he was a witness to. The only time Colmenares saw her son—on August 15, for 15 minutes—he said officers took a picture of him standing beside five mortar rounds, a mortar, and a riot shield. Juan Pedro’s lawyers saw him twice—on August 15 and 22—partly thanks to the support of the Colombian Consulate and the Venezuelan human rights organization Provea, Rangel Colmenares said.
Juan Pedro is currently being held at the Helicoide, and has not been charged with any crime nor taken before a judge, Rangel Colmenares told Human Rights Watch.
A video interview with Ramona Rangel Colmenares filmed by Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), an initiative that registers individual stories of Venezuela’s crisis, is available here:
UNHCHR on possible crimes against humanity
On September 11, during his opening statement at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the findings of a report his office released in August, highlighting excessive use of force by security agents and other abuses committed in the context of anti-government protests in Venezuela. He said their investigation “suggests the possibility that crimes against humanity may have been committed, which can only be confirmed by a subsequent criminal investigation” and urged the Human Rights Council to “establish an international investigation into the human rights violations in Venezuela.”
On September 8, 115 non-governmental organizations, including more than 80 from Venezuela, issued a joint statement asking Human Rights Council members to consider Venezuela’s crisis a priority and take the recommendations of the high commissioner’s office into account. They specifically called on members to ask the UNHCHR to continue to monitor the human rights situation in the country closely and report back regularly to the Council.
On September 11, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to urge her to lead an European effort to significantly advance pressure on the Venezuelan government to address the profound human rights and humanitarian crisis in that country. The letter welcomed recent statements by the European Union expressing concern about the abuses being committed in Venezuela and the Maduro government’s attempts to usurp powers of the legislature and undermine the rule of law. As the crisis worsens, we urge the European Union and its member states to agree on a strategic roadmap of positive incentives and targeted punitive measures to advance collective EU pressure on the Venezuelan government.
Joint statement: Venezuela’s Crisis Should be a Human Rights Council Priority
UN member states should address Venezuela’s deepening human rights and humanitarian crisis during the 36th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017, 116 Venezuelan, Latin American, and international organizations said.
Jailing “Mamá Lis”
On May 11, agents of the General Direction of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, DGCIM) arrested Lisbeth Añez, a 51-year-old Venezuelan store manager who for more than three years had been making regular visits to detainees in Caracas, when she was about to board a flight at the Caracas airport, according to her son, Luis González Añez. Añez, whom the prisoners she visited called “Mamá Lis,” was heading to Miami to get medical treatment for Hepatitis C.
Añez’s son visited two detention centers before finding out later that afternoon that his mother was being held at the DGCIM offices in Caracas. He said that an officer there told him she would be taken to a military court inside the military installation of Fuerte Tiuna.
On May 12, as Luis was discussing her case with lawyers from the Venezuelan Penal Forum, they learned Añez was being transferred to Fuerte Tiuna. Only the lawyers were allowed into the hearing, in which she was charged with rebellion and treason based on evidence that included alleged WhatsApp messages between Añez and a young man who had been detained days earlier, her son said. Lawyers said the messages were not described in judicial documents, and other evidence against her included books, letters, and public recognitions of her social work. The military court ordered her detention at National Bolivarian Intelligence Services headquarters in Caracas.
Her son was not allowed into the hearing and was able to see Añez for the first time on June 4. The lawyers were unable to see her again until June 12, the son said.
Añez spent over a month and a half inside her windowless cell, without seeing the sun, according to her son. During her time in prison, he said, she has received no medical attention, even though she suffers from hypertension, Hepatitis C, and has a cervical prosthesis.
Mamá Lis spent nearly four months at the intelligence headquarters she used to visit every week to bring food and medicine to detainees prosecuted for political reasons, the son told Human Rights Watch.
The hearing (audiencia preliminar) in which she was supposed to be formally accused of committing crimes was suspended four times. On the evening of September 6, she was finally brought to a military court, which confirmed charges of “public incitement” to commit crimes and association to commit crimes, and released her on conditional liberty, her lawyers said. The conditions for her release include not speaking to the media, one of the lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
A video interview with Luis González Añez filmed by Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), an initiative that registers individual stories of Venezuela’s crisis, is available here:
Human Rights Watch statement on UNHCHR report on Venezuela
On August 30, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report on Venezuela that outlines key issues of concern, including the brutal crackdown on massive anti-government protests, killings of opponents by security forces and armed pro-government groups, and abuses of detainees that in some cases amount to torture. UN member states should follow the lead of key Latin American governments who have condemned abuses in Venezuela and use this report as a basis for exercising strong pressure on the Maduro regime, including by putting Venezuela's crisis as a top priority during the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council and adopting targeted sanctions against specific Venezuelan authorities implicated in egregious abuses.
Thousands of Venezuelans have moved to Uruguay, taking advantage of a 2014 law that allows residents from member states of the regional trade bloc Mercosur to request a 3-year temporary residency with minimal requirements. A total of 2,448 Venezuelans requested legal permission to stay in 2015 and 2016. In the first five months of 2017, 1,617 Venezuelans requested such permission.
While in 2014 Venezuela was sixth in the list of countries whose nationals were requesting legal permits to stay in Uruguay, in 2017, it jumped to the first place.
The number of Venezuelans living in Uruguay is much higher than official statistics show, according to Manos VeneGuayas, an organization who provides support to recent Venezuelan immigrants. Although the government does not charge Venezuelans to obtain residency permits and it only requires a document certifying the person has a Venezuelan passport or ID and no criminal record over the past five years, many immigrants have faced enormous difficulties to obtain the international certification (or apostille) of their criminal records, which is provided by the Venezuelan Ministry of Affairs. Others obtain legal residency from Uruguayan family members, so are not included in the official statistics of Mercosur residencies.
Here are some accounts relayed to Human Rights Watch by Venezuelans who fled the crisis and are now living in Montevideo:
Hernán González (pseudonym), 40, fled Venezuela after the National Guard killed his brother, Pablo. One evening in November 2016, witnesses told González that Pablo was playing dominos with friends on the sidewalk of the slum where they lived near Caracas when members of the National Guard arrived in an official vehicle and detained him. González spent three hours going from one National Guard headquarter to another asking for Pablo, but everyone denied having him, he said. Later that evening, a friend accompanying his wife at a local hospital called González and told him he had seen Pablo there.
Members of the National Guard at the hospital told González that his brother had died in a “confrontation.” When he saw the body, he noticed it had bruises all over his body and a bullet hole in the chest, he said.
González said what stood out to him about Pablo’s killing was that, living in a violent slum, “we didn’t get killed by delinquents, but rather by those who are supposed to take care of us.” González, a hard-core chavista for many years, confided that his family had become critical of the Venezuelan government over the past couple of years and he had voted for the opposition in the 2015 legislative elections, but was still afraid to publicly speak about it for fear of reprisals.
González, however, said his brother’s killing was not the main reason he decided to move to Uruguay, where he arrived in mid-May 2017. He was tired of spending hours in line to buy food for his family and diapers for his 2-year-old grandson. He worked hard driving a truck and a friend’s taxi, but due to the skyrocketing inflation, his earnings were never enough, he said. Like many Venezuelan families, the Gonzáles’ usually ate one meal a day, rarely had proteins, and prioritized feeding his grandchild because, he said, the boy “cannot understand that there is no food.” González says he lost 30 kg in the eight months before leaving Venezuela—which he was able to do thanks to the help of a former boss, who now lives Uruguay, and bought him a plane ticket. González is planning to work to send money home and also save enough to take his family out of the country, until “Venezuela is what it used to be.”
Priscilla Verdes, a 38-year-old teacher, traveled with 11 others in a van through Brazil for several weeks to reach Uruguay, after the director of the institution where her son was planning to study engineering told her that most students dropped out because of high insecurity in the area where it is located. They did so in a van they called “Noah’s ark”. She traveled with her son’s girlfriend, who had been unable to obtain adequate medical treatment during her pregnancy in Venezuela and gave birth upon arrival in Uruguay.
Esteban Pérez, a 36-year-old journalist, decided to cross Brazil by bus with his wife when they could no longer afford repairing the vehicle they used for their family-run business that transported goods in Venezuela. They had long stopped earning enough food to adequately feed their family, they said. When Human Rights Watch interviewed them, they were living in a shelter for immigrants and working at a restaurant’s kitchen, saving money to able to take their children out of the country.
Arbitrary Detentions in Venezuela: Failure to Release Detainees Granted Bail
Joint Statement by the Venezuelan Penal Forum and Human Rights Watch
More than 5,300 people have been detained in the context of massive anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela since early April, according to a tally by the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a network of lawyers who provide pro-bono legal defense to detainees nation-wide. As of August 22, approximately 1,000 remained behind bars.
There are more than 640 people who, for political reasons, have been sentenced, being prosecuted, or ordered to remain in pre-trial detention while they await criminal prosecution (called “political prisoners” by the Venezuelan Penal Forum), some who have yet to be brought before a judge, at least 19 who have been granted a judicial order for their release but whom intelligence officers refuse to let go, and more than 100 who have been granted a judicial order to be released on bail but justice officials delay processing the bail for prolonged periods of time.
No monetary payment is required for release on bail in Venezuela. Venezuelan law allows judges to release people facing criminal prosecution if they present a guarantor who can assure the judge the detainee will present him or herself before the court during the process. However, the implementation of such measures has been unduly delayed by justice officials, leaving these people in arbitrary detention for periods of up to several months. The continued detention of such individuals after their release has been ordered is arbitrary and unlawful under international human rights law.
The following are some accounts by lawyers who provided legal support to people who were or continue to be held in detention arbitrarily, having had their judicial order granting their release on bail effectively ignored for weeks:
On April 13, members of armed pro-government gangs called “colectivos” detained Alberto Brito and Maribel Ilarraza in separate incidents in Caracas—Brito was leaving his home, while Ilarraza was returning home from work. Both were handed over to the Bolivarian National Guard, then to investigative police officers, and then back to the Bolivarian National Guard. The two detainees were eventually taken together before the same court in Caracas, where a judge charged them with “instigation to commit crimes” and “holding incendiary substances” during an anti-government demonstration. The judge imposed bail on Brito and authorized Ilarraza’s release without a guarantor, but requested a statement (caución juratoria) that she would present herself before the court. However, the court has since failed to process the paperwork that Brito’s and Ilarraza’s lawyer filed in their cases. They remain in detention.
On May 19, investigative police officers detained Yusmari Cañizalez, Haydee Brusco, and Caride Malavé—mother, daughter, and granddaughter respectively—in their home in Miranda state. A police report seen by their lawyer said they had been caught in frangranti while they were looting a toy store nearby. On May 21, the three were taken before a judge in Los Teques and charged with “taking advantage of products that derive from the crime” of looting. The judge ordered their conditional release after they presented guarantors. Although the lawyer claims he filed all the paperwork that same day, Cañizalez was released on July 7—50 days after her arrest—while Malavé and Brusco remained behind bars for 72 days, until July 29.
On May 25, Aragua state police forces detained Walter José Yepez Vargas, a 19-year-old student, as he was leaving a demonstration. On May 27, he was brought before a judge. Even though the prosecutor present at the hearing did not charge Yepez with any crime, the judge charged him with obstructing and damaging public roads, and ordered his release on bail after he presented six guarantors. However, the court rejected the guarantors presented by Yepez for different reasons, including that one had included his cell-phone instead of a landline to be reached. Forty days later, after increasing public pressure, a court ordered his conditional release without any guarantors.
On July 20, members of the Bolivarian National Guard detained Francisco Gamboa, a student and musician, who was inside a family member’s home in Mérida. On July 23, Gamboa was taken before a criminal judge and charged with public instigation to commit crimes. The judge allowed his release on bail, after he presented a guarantor before the court. Becerra’s lawyer filed the paperwork for his release that same day, as well as subsequent documentation additionally requested by the court, but Becerra remained in detention 27 days, until August 15.
On July 22, Ferney Becerra Pérez, a private security guard, was brought before a criminal court in Mérida, two days after being detained by members of the Bolivarian National Police while he was eating a hamburger in a street kiosk. The prosecutor did not charge Becerra with any crime and requested his release, but the judge nonetheless charged him with “public incitement to commit crimes” and ruled he would be released only after presenting two guarantors before the court. Becerra’s defense attorney filed the paperwork for his release on the same day, but he remained in detention 26 days, until August 14.
On July 27, members of the Bolivarian National Guard detained Wuilly Arteaga, a violinist who has become a symbol of peaceful protest in Venezuela, during a protest in Caracas against the government’s plan to convoke a Constituent Assembly. On July 30, Arteaga was taken before a civilian judge, but neither his family nor lawyer were told when the hearing took place, even though they had seen him arrive at the courthouse and were waiting outside for official information about which court would take the case. His lawyer later learned from an official with the court that the judge said Arteaga would be defended by a public defender and a prosecutor had charged him with possessing inflammatory substances, public incitement to commit crimes, and association to commit crimes. In that hearing, the judge ordered he could be released upon presentation of a guarantor.
When his lawyer eventually had access to the case file, he filed the paperwork for the guarantor but Arteaga was not released. The judge only let Arteaga go on August 15, after his case received huge international attention and his release was publicly and formally requested by Tarek William Saab—the attorney general appointed by the pro-government Constituent Assembly. Members of the National Guard drove Arteaga to a park in Caracas and dropped him off, without notifying his lawyers or family of his release. Arteaga is required to present himself before the court periodically and cannot participate in demonstrations.
Colombian TV Stations Off Cable
On August 24, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) took two Colombian channels—Caracol TV and RCN—off cable, Espacio Público, an NGO that monitors press freedom in Venezuela, reported. The decision comes after public statements by President Maduro accusing international channels of carrying out a “communication battle” against the Venezuelan government, in which he specifically mentioned Caracol TV and other Colombian outlets, Espacio Público said. In February, the government had taken CNN en Español off the air.
CONATEL is in charge of implementing an overly vague law that grants the government broad powers to sanction media outlets, and has been used in the past to impose sanctions on independent and critical outlets, Human Rights Watch research shows.
On May 18, Oscar Serrada, a 22-year-old student, participated in an anti-government protest in Caracas. Serrada told Human Rights Watch that demonstrators were peacefully walking down the Francisco Fajardo highway when the Bolivarian National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police started shooting teargas canisters towards demonstrators. Most demonstrators started to run away, but some members of the “Resistance” began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails towards the security officials.
Serrada said that he ran from the highway and when he was in a nearby avenue, he walked by a group of “Resistance” protesters and towards some members of the Bolivarian National Guard, with his hands up in the air, asking them to “stop repressing the demonstration.” As he got closer, he saw a guardsman less than 10 meters away pointing his shotgun at him, so he turned around and started to run away. He felt an impact on the back of his right leg, and felt he was losing a lot of blood, Serrada said.
Someone saw Serrada was limping and drove him on a motorcycle to a nearby Green Cross urgent care station, where he received first aid care. Serrada later went to a clinic, where he got an X-ray that revealed he had a glass marble lodged in his leg. Doctors operated on Serrada two days later to remove the marble.
Images of Serrada getting medical care, his X-ray, and the marble that was taken from his body, as well as a video interview with Serrada filmed by Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), an initiative that registers individual stories of Venezuela’s crisis, are available here:
Repressing a Green Cross Volunteer
Armando González is an actor who helps out the Green Cross, a network of volunteers from González’ alma mater the Central University of Venezuela (Universidad Central de Venezuela, UCV), who provide medical aid to people injured during anti-government demonstrations. González helps by providing transport for injured people on his motorcycle.
On June 5, González was at a demonstration in Caracas—wearing his helmet with the Green Cross insignia on it, and a white flag with a green cross tied to his motorcycle—when he was asked to accompany a doctor to aid a protestor injured by riot-control munitions that hit him in the chest. On the way, González and the doctor were caught between the demonstrators and the Bolivarian National Guard, who were using force to disperse the demonstrators, González told Human Rights Watch. Approximately 30 members of the Bolivarian National Guard surrounded the two volunteers and accused them of being terrorists for aiding demonstrators, González said. The doctor managed to run towards paramedics working for the government who provide medical aid to security agents, and they protected him.
González did not escape. One guard hit González on the back of his neck, and he fell to the ground. Around 15 officers surrounded him and beat and kicked him repeatedly. One asked him why he was wearing a home-made bulletproof vest, and seemed to kick him particularly hard, while another said he had a backpack of “guarimbero”—a pejorative term used by government supporters to refer to the political opposition. The backpack had medical supplies, according to González. The beating only stopped when paramedics intervened and said that the Green Cross volunteers worked with them.
When the beating stopped, one guard helped González stand up and get onto his motorcycle—although other officers objected —and González started to drive away. However, as he was leaving, one of guards fired riot-control munitions directly at his leg at point blank range—an incident that was photographed by a Venezuelan journalist—but González was still able to drive away.
Images of the attack and a video interview with González filmed by Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), an initiative that registers individual stories of Venezuela’s crisis, is available here:
Repressing a Photojournalist
Nicolás Pérez Prieto, a 26-year-old photojournalist who collaborates with various media outlets and the non-profit group Without a Gag (Sin Mordaza), described to Human Rights Watch how, while he was covering anti-government demonstrations since early April, he had been hit several times by riot-control munitions and how security forces have repeatedly blocked him from covering the protests. In some instances, Pérez says, he was caught between security forces and the “Resistance”—young men and women who throw elements including Molotov cocktails and rocks at security forces dispersing demonstrations —and was hit from both sides.
On May 29, Pérez was covering a demonstration in Caracas when he noticed that the Bolivarian National Police were about to arrest two members of the “Resistance.” Pérez was wearing a helmet and jacket that said “Press,” and had his press credentials visible.
When Pérez got closer to try to photograph what was happening, he said, he saw people from nearby buildings throwing things at the policemen to try to stop them from detaining the young men. In response, Pérez told Human Rights Watch, the policemen started firing riot-control munitions and teargas canisters in the direction of nearby apartments and inside a mall. One of the canisters ricocheted off the ground, hitting the mask Pérez was wearing, allowing some teargas to enter.
A member of the Bolivarian National Police grabbed Pérez by the neck with one hand and pushed him with the other. Pérez fell, and when he hit the ground, his helmet broke, and he lost both the helmet and the mask. Pérez told Human Rights Watch that he was facing the ground when he felt boots—which he thinks were that of policemen—step on him at least four times. Pérez said he couldn’t breathe properly, and passed out. He woke up in a nearby urgent care station, where he was told he had been taken on a motorbike. He asked to be transferred to another nearby station, where he knew the doctors who were providing care, and passed out a second time while being taken there.
Pérez said he was under medical observation for five days.
A video interview with Pérez filmed by Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), an initiative that registers individual stories of Venezuela’s crisis, is available here:
Taking over the Legislature
On August 18, the Constituent Assembly took over the National Assembly’s powers:
Maduro's Constituent Assembly took over the legislature, after yrs of political takeover of judges. Vzla no longer has 3 branches of govt. https://t.co/5nb85r1bz5
On May 22, doctors took to the Caracas streets to protest the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Vladimir Galavis, a 56-year-old oncology surgeon who participated in the demonstration, told Human Rights Watch that 90 percent of oncology medicines are unavailable in the country, there are delays of at least two months for oncology surgeries, and he has not had morphine to give to terminal patients for more than a year.
During the demonstration, the Bolivarian National Guard blocked doctors from marching along the Francisco Fajardo highway. Officers threw teargas to disperse the demonstration, and many participants ran away, but Galavis and approximately 20 other doctors, wearing white medical coats, stayed on the highway, and continued towards a line of security officers. Galavis says he approached one of the guards, hugged him, and asked him not to beat the demonstrators. The guard told Galavis to stay by his side, but the doctor decided to rejoin the other doctors, a few meters away.
As Galavis started walking away, the Bolivarian National Guard opened a water cannon directly at him, and he was knocked to the ground. Galavis says that the force of the water cannon, if directed at a person can cause fractures or other trauma. He said that the Bolivarian National Guard then used teargas on him and some of the other doctors. A colleague helped Galavis to leave the highway and get medical care on the street, as he was disoriented, had problems breathing, and was nauseous.
A week later, Galavis participated in another anti-government demonstration in Caracas. This time members of the Bolivarian National Guard and of armed pro-government groups called “colectivos” drove by on motorcycles shooting teargas canisters directly at the demonstrators, Galavis said. One of the canisters hit Galavis on his back, as he was running away. Galavis and other demonstrators sought refuge in a nearby mall, but some Bolivarian National Guard followed them. Galavis told Human Rights Watch that the officers used teargas inside the mall and he saw security agents beat people with their batons and shields.
Images of the attacks on Galavis and a video interview with him filmed by Urgent Portraits (Retratos Urgentes), an initiative that registers individual stories of Venezuela’s crisis, are available here:
Thirty-seven inmates killed
On August 17, Reuters reported that 37 inmates were killed and 14 officials were injured during an overnight raid by government security forces in a prison in Amazonas state. The governor of Amazonas said it was a “massacre.” The Attorney General’s Office is investigating the incident, Reuters said.
The “Law Against Political Violence”
On August 10, President Nicolás Maduro submitted a proposal to the Constituent Assembly to “stop the hate and violence campaign proposed by extreme sectors of the opposition, which has generated vandalism in the last months, causing more than 100 deaths and more than 1,000 people injured.”
While the president accused “extreme sectors of the opposition” for the more than 100 deaths and injuries that have occurred in the context of demonstrations, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on August 8 that security forces are responsible for at least 46 of the 124 deaths recorded by the Attorney General’s Office, and that armed pro-government groups, called “colectivos,” are reportedly responsible for another 27 deaths. The office also found that interviews conducted by their research team “paint a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators.”
Maduro said it was time to adopt “very severe laws” and to “sanction hate crimes, intolerance, in all its forms of expression.” The proposal would sentence people who “convoke violent actions and generate chaos and anxiety in the population” to up to 25 years in prison. Such vague language could open the door to increased criminalization of dissent and jailing of opponents.
The Venezuelan government should urgently step in and ensure morphine becomes available again so that the country’s cancer patients do not have to die in agony, said Courtney Tran in a dispatch published today.
The Lima Declaration
On August 8, 17 foreign affairs ministers from the Americas met in Lima to address Venezuela’s crisis. Twelve of them signed a comprehensive resolution, available here, that includes the following statements: it condemns the rupture of democratic order and the systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela, states they will not recognize the Constituent Assembly nor its resolutions, expresses concern about the humanitarian crisis and the government’s refusal to accept international aid, and imposes an arms embargo on Venezuela.
Extraordinario: Cancilleres de 12 países condenan violación sistemática de DDHH en Vnzla y desconocen decisiones de circo constituyente. pic.twitter.com/wYArUCbbLm
Since 2014, when the crisis started to deepen, thousands of Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia, according to official statistics that Human Rights Watch reviewed. On July 28, 2017, in response to the “sustained” and “increasing” Venezuelan immigration into the country, the Colombian government created a special permit that allows Venezuelan citizens who entered the country legally, but have overstayed their visas, to regularize their status though an online procedure. Venezuelans who regularize their situation under the new resolution would be allowed to stay and work legally in Colombia for up to two years. According to Colombian authorities, more than 22,000 Venezuelans requested the permit on the first day the online procedure was available.
In addition, thousands of Venezuelans cross the border for short periods of time to work or buy basic goods, including food and medicine, that they are unable to get in their country. In May 2017, the Colombian government established a “frontier migration card” (tarjeta de movilidad fronteriza) that allows Venezuelans to spend up to seven days in neighboring provinces of Colombia, after filing basic information in an online form. Colombian officials told Human Rights Watch that they initially estimated they would issue 20,000 cards, but had already issued over 450,000 as of July.
Here are some accounts relayed to Human Rights Watch by Venezuelans who fled the crisis and are now living in Bogotá:
Richard Valenzuela, 51, arrived in Bogotá from Caracas in December 2015 to get urgent medical treatment for his wife, who had suffered a valvular heart disease since 2015. Doctors told Valenzuela that she couldn’t be operated on in Venezuela because the hospitals lacked the medical supplies necessary for the operation, Valenzuela said. Valenzuela also told Human Rights Watch they had increasing difficulties to purchase food: “One had to be lucky to find something after waiting in the lines,” he said.
Valenzuela, his wife, and their son Erick took a bus from Caracas to San Cristobal, in Táchira state, and then a taxi to the border. Richard uses a wheelchair and his wife was very weak, so the final 200-meter journey to the border—which cannot be done by car—was very difficult for them. His wife suffered a stroke as they were crossing the border, so she was immediately taken to a hospital in the Colombian city of Cúcuta. Valenzuela and his son spent two days sleeping on the streets, while his wife was hospitalized, until a relative who lived in Bogotá picked them up and drove her them to Bogotá.
Colombian doctors operated on Valenzuela’s wife a few months later. She is now feeling better but must take medication to treat her condition. Valenzuela’s son, who was born in Venezuela but has dual nationality, works in a bakery, sometimes on 16-hour shifts to earn enough money to support his family. When Human Rights Watch interviewed him in July, Valenzuela was trying to get a residency visa to get a job, but he couldn’t afford it. His landlord had recently asked them to leave because of delays in their rent payment.
Cesar Bravo (pseudonym), a 28-year-old engineer and activist of the Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) opposition party, left Venezuela due to the economic hardships his family was facing. Their two sources of income—his mother’s pension and a family-owned store that sells vegetables—were insufficient to adequately feed their family of five. Bravo was also recovering from a cancer for which he had been treated and cured a few years ago, and he struggled to get the vitamins and sufficient food he needed to recover weight. At some point during his treatment he weighed 38 kilos, but is now slowly recovering, Bravo told us. When Human Rights Watch interviewed him in July, he was still very thin.
Yorman Arteaga, a 24-year-old architect, was a Popular Will volunteer in Zulia State during the December 2015 legislative elections. At the time, a soldier threatened to detain him after he complained about how government supporters were overseeing the elections. Local authorities fired Arteaga’s father, who worked at a local mayor’s office, after the legislative elections because he hadn’t voted for the government’s official party, Arteaga told Human Rights Watch. Nine months later, Arteaga decided to leave the country to avoid causing problems for his family, he told Human Rights Watch.
Bravo and Arteaga traveled together by car to the border close to Maicao, Colombia, and then took a bus to Bogotá, where they arrived in September 2016.
Without legal residency permits in the country, it has been hard for both of them to find a job in their area of expertise. Bravo—who cleaned houses, and worked at a few restaurants and a minimarket—told Human Rights Watch that he has achieved more in these months than he could have in Venezuela. Arteaga worked at a restaurant for some time, until he found his current job, administering another restaurant that serves Venezuelan food.
Both Bravo and Arteaga are helping their families in Venezuela, sending back food, personal items such as deodorant, and basic medicine including acetaminophen and asthma medication.
Past midnight on August 8, the Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court sanctioned Ramon Muchacho, an opposition mayor of the Chacao municipality in Caracas, sentencing him to 15 months in prison and politically disqualifying him from holding office. The court forbade him to leave the country and ordered his detention at the headquarters of the intelligence services in Caracas.
On May 24, the Supreme Court had issued a ruling ordering Muchacho to ensure people did not block roads in his municipality, and to remove any obstacles that prevent citizens from moving around freely. Chacao is one of the districts where anti-government protests have been taking place almost daily since early April. On August 8, the Supreme Court accused Muchacho of contempt for failing to comply with its injunction.
The Supreme Court instituted a summary proceeding in which Muchacho says he was unable to adequately defend himself. Its Constitutional Chamber was responsible for the “accusation” and “sentencing” in the case. The Supreme Court’s ruling, in this case a court of first instance, is not subject to appeal, which violates the due process right of defendants to appeal a criminal conviction.
During the 2014 crackdown on anti-government protests, the Supreme Court instituted such summary proceedings for the first time against two opposition mayors, Daniel Ceballos and Vicencio Scarano.
At least three other mayors—Alfredo Ramos, from the Iribarren municipality in Lara state, Gustavo Marcano from the Diego Bautista Urbaneja municipality in Anzoátegui state, and Carlos García from the Libertador municipality in Mérida state—have been sanctioned to 15 months in prison over the past weeks following the exact same procedure. Ramos was detained in his office; his family and lawyer had been unable to see him as of August 7. Marcano fled the country. Carlos García published a video on Twitter on August 2 stating he would not comply with the ruling.
In all of the above cases, the Supreme Court argued the mayors were in contempt of a previous injunction that aimed at protecting the rights of free transit, health, work, education, enjoyment of a healthy and safe environment, sports, and recreation.
In recent weeks, the court has issued similar injunctions against at least another 10 mayors and one governor, all of them from the opposition, including:
Juan José Peña, mayor of the Alberto Adriani municipality in Mérida state.
Omar Lares, mayor of the Campo Elías municipality in Mérida state.
Eveling Trejo, mayor of the Maracaibo municipality in Zulia state.
Widespread and Systematic, says the UNHCHR
On August 8, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement that a UN human rights team had conducted interviews that “paint a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela,” as well as “patterns of other human rights violations, including violent house raids, torture and ill-treatment of those detained in connection with the protests.”
The team concluded that security forces are allegedly responsible for at least 46 of the 124 deaths in the context of the demonstrations that were confirmed by the Attorney General’s Office. Armed pro-government groups, called “colectivos,” are reportedly responsible for another 27 deaths, the team found. In addition to the excessive use of force on the streets, the statement also outlines that more than 5,000 people were arbitrarily arrested, including several cases in which there were credible reports of abuse that amount to torture.
The full statement is available here. A report with the team’s findings is scheduled to be released at the end of August.
On August 5, a day after Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly was inaugurated, its members removed Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz from office, and appointed Tarek William Saab, a government loyalist who serves as Venezuela’s Ombudsman, as the new attorney general. Prior to Ortega’s removal, dozens of armed members of the Bolivarian National Guard had surrounded one of the Attorney General’s Office’s main buildings in Caracas.
During the August 5 session, the Constituent Assembly also decided that it would convene for up to two years, and chose as its president former foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez.
For each of these measures, the powerful chavista politician Diosdado Cabello proposed their adoption, the crowd present at the Constituent Assembly meeting clapped, and then Cabello stated the decision had been adopted.
More than 40 governments worldwide have publicly rejected the Constituent Assembly’s legitimacy. The attorney general issued a public statement later that day, stating she did not recognize the Constituent Assembly’s decision to remove her from office and planned to continue working.
Así funciona la constituyente en Venezuela: el capitán Cabello "propone", la turba aplaude y queda aprobado. ¿Fascismo o democracia? pic.twitter.com/4gvAQP01Dd
On August 6, a video circulated on social media showing more than a dozen uniformed men announcing an uprising with the stated aim of restoring Venezuela’s constitutional order, after the government went ahead with its initiative to implement a Constituent Assembly, Reuters reported. The video shows a man, who is reportedly a former Bolivarian National Guard captain who was removed from the Guard in 2014, insisting that they were not staging a coup.
The first official reaction came from the powerful pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello, who tweeted during the morning that there had been a “terrorist attack” on Fort Paramacay, a military base located close to Valencia, Carabobo state.
The Venezuelan Armed Forces issued a statement saying there had been a “terrorist operation” that had been financed “by activists of the extreme right connected to foreign governments.” The statement says the Armed Forces support the government of Nicolás Maduro.
In his TV show on August 6, President Maduro claimed that around 20 armed men had entered Fort Paramacay before dawn and took some weapons. He stated that two attackers had been killed in a firefight with soldiers, while other party officials claimed eight others were arrested and the rest had been able to leave with the weapons. Maduro stated that those who fled were “being actively searched for,” according to Reuters.
No independent source has verified the government’s claims.
Jailing a Violinist
On July 27, members of the Bolivarian National Guard detained Wuilly Arteaga during a protest in Caracas against the government’s plan to convoke a Constituent Assembly.
During his detention, security forces brutally beat Arteaga with their helmets and with the violin he was playing during the protest, and burnt his hair, Alfredo Romero, a lawyer with the Venezuelan Penal Forum, told Human Rights Watch. Arteaga said that he was taken away in a vehicle with around 20 people, and although he had his eyes covered, he could hear a woman who was close to him screaming that a member of the Bolivarian National Guard was “violating her with his fingers,” according to Romero. Romero was allowed to see Arteaga on July 28, when he was taken to the investigative police offices in Caracas. Later, the Attorney General’s Office later also alleged that Arteaga had been subject to cruel treatment.
On July 30, Arteaga was taken before a civilian judge, but neither his family nor Romero were told when the hearing took place, even though they had seen him arrive at the courthouse and were waiting outside for official information regarding which court would take the case, Romero said. A judicial source later told Romero that the judge said Arteaga would be defended by a public defender and a prosecutor had charged him with possessing inflammatory substances, public incitement to commit crimes, and association to commit crimes.
That same day, the Attorney General’s Office issued a statement in which it commissioned a prosecutor to investigate the prosecutor who charged Arteaga, arguing that she had acted without following orders from the attorney general nor being assigned to cover in flagranti cases.
Arteaga is being held at a Bolivarian National Guard headquarters in Caracas. Romero, who could see Arteaga on August 3, said he was wearing the same clothes from the day of his detention and the stitches he had in his mouth and face appear to have become infected.
Arteaga’s family has been unable to see him since his detention, Romero told Human Rights Watch.
Arteaga, who had previously been a victim of abuse by the National Guard, remains a symbol of peaceful protest in Venezuela.
(Video) Ni PERDIGONES NI METRAS nos detendrán de seguir luchando hasta lograr la INDEPENDENCIA DE VENEZUELA. Mañana vuelvo a las CALLES... pic.twitter.com/aZHnmv7Hgt
On August 2, Smartmatic, a private company that has provided election technology and support services in Venezuela since 2004, issued a statement reporting that “the turnout figures” of the July 30 election of members for the Constituent Assembly were “tampered with.” The company, which claimed that it had “stood behind all the results of the elections held in Venezuela from 2004 to 2015, regardless of what political party won,” estimated that this time “the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least one million votes.”
As it becomes clearer and clearer that there is much to be gained from a peaceful transition back to democracy, and much to be lost from continuing to walk the destructive path Maduro has embarked upon, more and more people will jump off the government’s sinking boat, José Miguel Vivanco and Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published today by El Mundo.
On August 1, members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services took Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, two opposition leaders who were under house arrest, from their homes in the middle of the night. Both men had openly criticized the government and its recent measures, including the July 30 vote to elect members for a Constituent Assembly—López did so on Twitter, while Ledezma published a video that was widely shared in social media.
Elías Jaua, a pro-government politician who will be a member of the Constituent Assembly, said on TV that López and Ledezma had violated the conditions for their house arrest, including the prohibition to make “political statements” and “transmit messages… that call for not recognizing institutions.” A Supreme Court statement published later confirmed López was forbidden from carrying out “political proselytism” and Ledezma could not “issue statements to any media,” and added that “intelligence sources” said they had a plan to flee.
Their families did not know their whereabouts for several hours. López and Ledezma are both reportedly being held at the Ramo Verde military prison.
Here are the videos showing the moment they were taken away:
Venezuela is at a turning point, as are its regional neighbors. Latin America should show the world it will not tolerate a full-fledged dictatorship that is willing and able to commit widespread abuses against its people while unraveling the fundamental democratic principles that the region worked has hard to build, said Tamara Taraciuk Broner in an article published today on the election of members to the Constituent Assembly proposed by President Maduro.
Jailing a Defense Attorney
On July 22, intelligence agents detained Ángel Zerpa, a criminal lawyer and university professor, as he was driving with his sister in Miranda state, his family said. Zerpa defended Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz’s lawyer in a case that government supporters brought against her after she openly criticized the government. The case was based on allegations that Ortega has lied about her participation in the naming of Supreme Court judges in 2015. Zerpa had been recently appointed by the opposition-led National Assembly to the Supreme Court, after legislators determined that government supporters had appointed sitting justices violating legal norms in late 2015, immediately before the opposition majority took office. The Supreme Court has rejected that finding and none of the justices selected by the National Assembly since the last elections are serving on the court.
Prior to Zerpa’s detention, President Nicolás Maduro said on TV that “those people they appointed, those usurpers out there, they will all go to jail, one by one.” A Supreme Court judge had stated that any of the opposition’s nominees who attempted to take office would be committing crimes including treason.
For at least 48 hours, his family was unaware of his whereabouts, his daughter told the press. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office requested to visit him at the intelligence headquarters, where they say Zerpa was being held, but they were denied access. The Venezuelan Penal Forum president stated he had received information that Zerpa had been locked up in a bathroom full of feces and without any food.
On July 24, Zerpa was taken before a military court, where his lawyers were not allowed to enter, and charged with treason, the Venezuelan Penal Forum reported. Zerpa has been sent back to intelligence headquarters in Caracas, where he’s reportedly on a hunger strike. On July 26, the Attorney General’s Office filed a legal challenge before a military court, asking that the case be transferred to the civilian justice system.
No member of his family nor private lawyer has been able to see Zerpa since his detention, a family member told Human Rights Watch.
Why We Oppose Maduro’s Constituent Assembly
If President Nicolás Maduro goes ahead with his plan to elect members for a Constituent Assembly on July 30, he will effectively set the stage to perpetuate himself in power, at the expense of Venezuelan democracy and the human rights of the Venezuelan people, said José Miguel Vivanco and Tamara Taraciuk Broner in an article published by Semana.
Police and Military Raids
On July 22, the Attorney General’s Office released a report on its investigations into allegations of abuses committed by security agents during police and military raids between July 2015 and March 2017. These raids, which occurred as part of a program known as the “Operation to Liberate and Protect the People” (OLP) launched in July 2015, has led to widespread allegations of abuses, including extrajudicial killings and other violent abuses, arbitrary detentions, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and the arbitrary deportation of Colombian nationals often accused without evidence of having links to “paramilitaries.” A joint report by Human Rights Watch and Provea on abuses during the OLP is available here.
The Attorney General’s Office reported that 505 people had been killed by military or police personnel during these operations. The report includes a detailed account of 34 cases of extrajudicial killings.
A total of 1,074 members of the military or police are under investigation for these and other crimes, including arbitrarily entering homes, arbitrary arrests, cruel treatment, and destruction of homes, the report says. More than 700 belong to the investigative police, and more than 200 are members of the Bolivarian National Police and the Bolivarian National Guard. A total of 112 members of the military and police have been charged with various crimes.
Acá disponible el informe de Actuaciones del MP relacionadas con la OLP en Venezuela de julio 2015 a marzo 2017 https://t.co/kaxI7URkDN
On July 22, The New York Times published this article by photojournalist Meredith Kohut, which describes her coverage of the protests during the past weeks and what she’s seen in the frontlines. It also includes some of her wonderful photographs, which must be seen.
On July 19, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro published a third comprehensive report on Venezuela’s crisis. The report describes measures that undermine Venezuelan democracy, including Supreme Court rulings that took over the powers of the National Assembly and determined that supporting the OAS discussion on the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to Venezuela could constitute treason. It also describes other Supreme Court actions that validated the government’s abusive policies and practices, including legitimizing the state of emergency declared by the president for over a year and attacks on the attorney general, and upholding the president’s proposal to convoke a Constituent Assembly.
In addition, the report describes the repression on the streets by security forces and armed pro-government gangs known as “colectivos,” which led to dozens of killings, at least hundreds of injuries, thousands of arrests, and hundreds of prosecutions in military courts. The report says there are over 400 political prisoners in Venezuela, and accuses security forces, including the intelligence services, of torturing detainees. It also describes the ongoing humanitarian crisis and its impact on the life and health of Venezuelans, citing official sources that indicate an increase of maternal and infant mortality rates and of the amount of malaria cases.
The report concludes that “the alteration of constitutional order and the disappearance of democracy in Venezuela has generated spiraling chaos and institutional violence that grows day after day.” Almagro urges OAS member states to collectively call on the Venezuelan government to suspend the Constituent Assembly process; end the repression, release political prisoners, and investigate those responsible for abuses; organize free and fair elections; authorize international humanitarian aid; reestablish Venezuela’s constitutional order with proper separation of powers and independent bodies, including the legislature, electoral authorities, and the Supreme Court; and create an international mechanism to investigate corruption allegations.
Almagro’s previous reports on Venezuela are available here and here.
On July 17, the While House released a statement stating that the United States would adopt “strong and swift” economic actions against Venezuela if the Maduro administration moves forward with its plans to elect members for a Constituent Assembly on July 30.
Reuters reported that a senior Trump administration official told reporters that “all options” were on the table, including possible measures against Venezuela’s oil sector, such as banning imports to the United States. Punitive sanctions could also come against senior Venezuelan officials, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and the powerful pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello.
On July 13, Gianni Scovani, a 33-year-old man with Asperger syndrome, was brutally beaten by members of the Bolivarian National Police and the Bolivarian National Guard in the parking lot of a mall in Anzoátegui state. There was an ongoing demonstration nearby. The beating was caught on tape:
Scovani was initially taken to a military installation of the Bolivarian National Guard, where he was denied access to his family, lawyers, and medical treatment, according to the Venezuelan Penal Forum.
On July 17, the Attorney General’s Office issued a press release stating that a judge had requested the investigative police to detain four policemen and four sergeants in connection with the incident. Scovani was eventually transferred to a public hospital, where he was receiving medical treatment, the attorney general said.
That same day, the Ombudsman tweeted a picture of Scovani at the hospital and said the eight men had been caught and his office had requested that no charges be brought against Scovani.
On July 19, the attorney general said that none of the eight men had been taken before prosecutors, according to press reports.
Maduro’s “Emergency Justice Plan”
On July 18, President Maduro announced his government would implement a “Special Plan of Emergency Justice” to be carried out by Venezuela’s Supreme Court, the military justice system, the police, and the deputy attorney general. The deputy attorney general mentioned by Maduro was appointed by the Supreme Court, which lacks independence from the executive, after it refused to recognize the deputy attorney general appointed by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz with the approval of the National Assembly, as required by the constitution. The purpose of the plan, to be implemented as of July 19, was to “search and capture all conspirators” and impose “exemplary sanctions” to them.
On July 13, unidentified individuals detained Carlos Graffe, a 31-year-old activist of the opposition party Popular Will. Graffe has collaborated with human rights groups and worked for a decade in low-income neighborhoods in Carabobo state. He was detained as he was leaving a meeting with health workers in Valencia, Graffe’s father told Human Rights Watch. Days prior to his detention, Graffe had actively promoted the unofficial plebiscite organized by the opposition on July 16.
In a video of his detention, filmed by someone who was driving by, Graffe shouts he is being kidnapped, and is seen being forced into a white van by men in plainclothes. Another man is seen getting inside a blue vehicle, which Graffe’s father said belonged to his son. The family has not seen that vehicle seen since then.
That afternoon, the Carabobo police tweeted that Graffe was detained for carrying explosives and fireworks that had nails stuck to them with tape.
Graffe’s family visited headquarters of the intelligence services, the Bolivarian National Guard, and the Carabobo police that day, and in each case, they were told that Graffe was not being held there, his father said.
In the morning of July 14, Graffe called his father and told him that he was alright but was not allowed to tell him where he was being held. When Graffe asked his father to convey to his team that they should continue working on preparations for the July 16 plebiscite, the communication got disconnected, his father told Human Rights Watch.
At 10:30 p.m., Graffe was brought before a military judge in an improvised courtroom inside the “South Command,” a Bolivarian National Guard installation located in Ciudad Chávez, Carabobo state. His family was not allowed to enter. His lawyers were only allowed to see Graffee a few minutes before the hearing, his father said. The judge charged Graffe with stealing “materials that belong to the Armed Forces” and “instigating rebellion” and ordered his pretrial detention in the Ramo Verde military prison near Caracas, a lawyer present at the hearing told Human Rights Watch. The judge refused to authorize his release or house arrest.
When his parents visited the South Command installation the following morning, they were told they had time to leave and bring back lunch for Graffe, who would be transferred to Caracas in the afternoon. When they returned, Graffe had already been taken away, the father told Human Rights Watch.
On July 15, Graffe’s parents tried to see him in Ramo Verde. The guards allowed them to leave a mat, drinking water, food, and clothes for him, but they were not allowed to see him. Neither the family nor the lawyers have seen Graffe since the hearing.
Millions of Venezuelans Speak Out Against Government
On July 16, more than seven million Venezuelans showed their government and the world that they want nothing to do with President Nicolás Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution, and called for immediate elections. Maduro’s moves have been widely condemned, including by many who see it as a ploy to put off next year’s presidential elections, said Tamara Taraciuk Broner in a commentary published today.
Millions of Venezuelans Speak Out Against the Government: they ask for elections and they should be heard. https://t.co/603Bjtq3IV
In recent weeks, security forces—at times working with the collaboration of armed pro-government gangs called “colectivos”—have entered university campuses and detained dozens of university students. Venezuela’s Universities’ Law only allows security forces to enter the campuses to stop the commission of a crime or implement court rulings. Security forces have also detained many students in response to anti-government protests in which university students have actively participated.
On May 16, eight official motorcycles carrying members of the National Guard entered the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) campus in Puerto Ordaz, Guayana, and detained Nelson Nava, a student, for reasons that are unclear. They later detained Marcos Valverde, a journalist and university professor, outside the campus when he tried to mediate with the officers. Both men were taken to Bolivarian National Guard headquarters, according to press reports. Valverde said he was released after several hours, while Nava was charged with public incitement to commit crimes, and released on conditional liberty.
UCAB-Guayana authorities said two other students were arbitrarily detained on May 17 when they were heading to the university and released after several hours.
On June 1, security forces used force to disperse a demonstration near the UCAB-Guayana campus, according to press reports. Ten students were detained, university authorities said. The students were charged with public incitement to commit crimes and released on June 4 on conditional liberty.
On June 15, security forces detained another six students during a peaceful anti-government protest, UCAB-Guayana university authorities said. On June 18, a judge ordered the detention of these students, together with five others detained that day, despite the fact that the prosecutor had requested their release on conditional liberty, their lawyer said. Their families have been unable to visit them, a local newspaper reported. They remain in prison.
On June 22, members of colectivos and security force personnel—including the Bolivarian National Police, the Bolivarian National Guard, and state police—entered the Sucre campus of Oriente University. Members of the colectivos destroyed classrooms and detained seven students, whom they then handed over to security forces, the university dean said. The students were charged with crimes including public incitement to commit crimes and violent damages to property, and released on conditional liberty, according to press accounts. One of the conditions for their release was that they don’t participate in public demonstrations. The colectivos have staged similar incursions onto UDO campuses in Cumaná and Ciudad Bolivar in previous weeks, according to press reports.
On June 29, members of the Bolivarian National Police detained at least 20 students, most from the University Simon Bolivar, when they were participating in an anti-government protest in Caracas. After the case garnered a lot of attention in Venezuela, the students were brought before a judge—the prosecutor did not bring any charges and the judge released them, a lawyer with the Venezuelan Penal Forum, which collaborated in their defense, said.
At 6 a.m. on July 2, security forces entered the campus of the Libertador Experimental Pedagogical University (Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador, UPEL), beat students and private security guards, and detained students without having an arrest warrant, the university dean said. A military court charged a total of 27 detainees with instigating rebellion and other crimes during a hearing that lasted all night and finished at 7 a.m. on July 4. The 22 men were sent to prison, while the five women were sent to house arrest. Family members were unable to visit the detainees in prison, a local news outlet reported.
The UNHCHR on the July 16 Public Consultation
On July 14, the spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Venezuelan authorities to guarantee Venezuelans’ rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly during the July 16 public consultation organized by the National Assembly and others to express their views regarding President Nicolás Maduro’s plans to rewrite the Constitution, among others. The spokesperson expressed the office hoped “that Sunday’s consultation will proceed peacefully and in the full respect of the human rights for all.”
The spokesperson also mentioned that at least 92 people and 1,500 people have been injured in the context of the demonstrations. She called on the government to ensure that security forces do not use excessive force against demonstrators and to stop prosecutions of civilians by military court, which violates international law. She also said the office “appeals to all sides in Venezuela to renounce violence” and condemns acts of violence against security forces.
Also on July 14, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association expressed concern at potential for repression in the unofficial public vote to be held on July 16. The expert said she was “deeply concerned” about the “pattern of violence displayed in similar circumstances by the police and National Guard that could be applied in the context of this consultation” and stated that Venezuelan authorities “should not interfere with peaceful demonstrations, and indeed are obliged to actively protect assemblies.”
The ABCs of Maduro’s Constituent Assembly Proposal
On May 1, President Maduro announced that he would convoke by decree a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, and created a presidential commission made up of government officials to determine how the process would be carried out.
On May 23, Maduro issued another decree outlining the composition of the Constituent Assembly. It states that 364 of its members would be elected as representatives of specific areas of the country (“territorial representation”), eight would represent indigenous communities, and the rest would be elected to represent specific groups (“sectorial representation”). There are seven “sectors” that would be represented by this last group, according to the decree: fishermen and peasants, people with disabilities, business people, pensioned people, students, workers, and members of communal councils. A total of 174 representatives would be chosen from these sectors, according to electoral rules later adopted by the National Electoral Council. The decree also states that the Constituent Assembly will start its work 72 hours after its members are elected, and that they would meet where the National Assembly currently sits. It establishes no rules regarding how it will operate and sets no limits on how long it may take to draft the new constitution.
On May 31, the Supreme Court, which has entirely ceased to function as an independent check on presidential power, upheld Maduro’s proposal. It later validated the rules to elect members to the Constituent Assembly, and rejected challenges to the whole process filed by Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who has recently become a vocal government critic.
Faced with strong criticism regarding the lack of popular participation in the decision to draft a new constitution, on June 4, Maduro published yet another decree, “calling on” the Constituent Assembly to organize a popular referendum to approve the new Constitution when it is finished.
Soon after, the National Electoral Council’s president said that the elections to choose Constituent Assembly members will take place on July 30.
Several Venezuelan constitutional law experts have criticized Maduro’s initiative, arguing that the current constitution (article 347) only allows the Venezuelan people to decide if they want to convoke a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution. Although the constitution allows the president and other authorities to propose such a measure (article 348), they agree that such proposal should be subject to popular approval before it is implemented.
Opponents of Maduro’s plan have also put forward a range of other serious concerns. The “sectoral representation,” critics say, reflects an essentially arbitrary choice of groups to represent. Critics argue that because the “territorial representation” component is based on a fixed number of representatives per municipality, independently of how many people live in it, it gives larger weight to the vote of those who live in rural areas. People living in many rural areas have traditionally supported the Maduro administration, while opposition to the government is generally quite widespread in urban areas.
Finally, the broad powers granted to the Constituent Assembly—for an indeterminate amount of time—could open the door to actions that go far beyond the drafting of a new Constitution. In fact, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello has already warned that the Constituent Assembly could eliminate parliamentary immunity and remove the attorney general. The Constituent Assembly could also indefinitely suspend elections for governors—which were supposed to take place in 2016 and are now scheduled for December 2017—, for other local authorities—that should take place in 2017—and presidential elections, which should take place in 2018.
According to a recent poll, approximately 85 percent of Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly proposal, press reports say. The opposition, which will not participate in the proposed Constituent Assembly, is organizing an unofficial rally to be held on July 16, in which Venezuelans in Venezuela and abroad can cast symbolic votes on the government’s proposal.
On July 11, the president of the National Electoral Council announced that they are organizing electoral events until July 22 to provide information on the Constituent Assembly vote on July 30, and called on people to attend their events specifically on July 16, according to press reports. On the same day, the government official party filed a legal challenge against the July 16 rally organized by the opposition.
On July 12, the Forum for Life, a network of Venezuelan human rights groups, issued a statement opposing government threats to fire officials who participate in the July 16 vote, and urging Venezuelan authorities to adopt all necessary measures to protect the life, physical integrity and other rights of Venezuelans who wish to participate.
Here’s a good paper by constitutional law expert Carlos Ayala on the Constituent Assembly process, and a radio interview he recently gave on this topic:
Leopoldo López Is Home. But Venezuela Is Not Free.
Mr. López’s move to house arrest is a major concession by the government. But it’s almost certainly a tactical retreat, intended to blunt criticism and deflate internal and international pressure. Now is not the time to be lulled into complacency. On the contrary, the governments throughout the region that have been calling for an end to the repression — including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and the United States — should redouble their efforts, José Miguel Vivanco said in an op-ed published by The New York Times.
House Arrest for Opposition Leader Leopoldo López
Venezuela released opposition leader Leopoldo López from prison on July 8, 2017, and placed him under house arrest.
“The release of Leopoldo López is a major capitulation by Venezuela’s government, which just days ago allowed armed thugs to assault the National Assembly and beat up opposition legislators in broad daylight. It’s a sign that the massive street protests – plus the calls by democratic leaders throughout Latin America to end the repression – are having an impact. But make no mistake: Leopoldo López is still not free. He remains under house arrest and hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. Leaders around the world should increase their calls for the unconditional release of all political prisoners and a restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela.”
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director, Human Rights Watch
Images of the assault on the National Assembly
On July 5, a pro-government mob forcefully entered the National Assembly, with no apparent resistance from security guards, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported. The attack left at least 15 people injured, including a legislator who sought medical care for broken ribs and a head wound. The assailants kicked and punched legislators and attacked journalists inside the Assembly and robbed their equipment, the article says.
The attack was condemned by many foreign leaders, including Colombia’s president, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Peru’s foreign affairs minister.
Here are some images of what happened:
Undermining Free Speech
On July 6, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing on violations of free speech in Venezuela. The Venezuelan nongovernmental group Espacio Público, which monitors free speech abuses in the country, highlighted attempts to undermine coverage that is critical of the government, including intimidation, arrests, and physical abuse against journalists covering the protests, and excessive restrictions on the ability of foreign journalists to cover Venezuela. Additional information and summaries of cases involving journalists, media outlets, and human rights defenders is available in this IPYS report, presented during the hearing.
During the hearing, the government representative recognized that 800 websites had been blocked and that “there have been excesses by police forces against journalists,” Espacio Público said.
Here are some examples of abuses against journalists:
On March 31, more than 10 members of the National Guard tried to stop Elyangélica González, a journalist with Univisión, Primer Impacto and Radio Caracol, from covering a student anti-government protest outside the Supreme Court. The agents beat, dragged her for several meters, and pulled her hair, González said. When she asked why she was being detained, an officer answered, “because I feel like it.” They also damaged her work equipment and cell phones. The abuse was caught on tape. She was held for half an hour, and let go.
On May 24, members of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police used force to disperse an anti-government demonstration in the Bello Monte neighborhood in Caracas, Mildred Manrique, a Venezuelan journalist who was covering the protest, told Human Rights Watch. Incidents broke out when protesters started hurling back the teargas bombs that security agents had thrown towards them, Manrique said.
At approximately 4 pm, members of the National Guard arrived in motorcycles at the area where a group of journalists, including Manrique, were standing. There were at least five journalists standing behind a wall to protect themselves, and seven others across the street. They all had their journalist IDs on them and were wearing vests that said “press,” Manrique said. The security agents turned towards them and shot teargas bombs directly at the journalists, who were filming the incidents, and one of the bombs hit Manrique on her chest, she said. She was protected by the vest, so it bounced on to her arm, burning her elbow, according to Manrique. Another teargas bomb hit a journalist’s testicles, she said. Volunteers from the Green Cross who have been providing emergency care during the protests helped Manrique at the scene, and she continued working.
On June 15, Daniella Zambrano, a journalist working for the international news channel NTN24, was arrested with her cameraman and another cameraman of the international channel Telemundo in a metro station in Caracas. The journalists were covering a demonstration against President Maduro’s proposal to draft a new constitution. A representative of the metro told Zambrano she did not have authorization to cover the protest, and forbade them from leaving until agents from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services arrived. The intelligence agents asked her for her name, ID number, cellphone number, and Twitter account, Zambrano said. The journalists said they were held for almost two hours, and only released after they erased the material they had taped.
On June 13, members of the Bolivarian National Guard and the National Command Against Extortion and Kidnaps entered a series of apartment buildings in Caracas, known as “The Greens” (Los Verdes), hours after many residents participated in anti-government protests.
A resident told Human Rights Watch that the officers who entered her home were armed, had their faces covered with black masks, and did not have any identifying information. The resident said they did not have a judicial order, and told her that if she collaborated, “there would be no violence.” Another resident told the news site Crónica Uno that a group of 10 armed men—two of them wearing masks—entered her home, accused her of collaborating with “terrorists,” and shot her dog in the eye when it started barking. Others told Venezuelan media outlets in taped interviews that security agents broke cars, entered homes without a judicial warrant, stole computers and footage of security cameras from the building’s main offices, and detained several people, including at least some who residents said had not even participated in the protests. Residents recorded the moment when a military convoy broke into the building complex’s main entrance, and took pictures of destroyed cars and doors, according to press accounts.
That evening, Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol said on Twitter that 23 “terrorists” had been detained during the operation.
Two days later, the Attorney General’s Office issued a press release stating it was investigating the incident, and it had found teargas canisters, shotgun bullets, and metal pellets in the building complex. On June 28, the Attorney General’s Office asked a criminal court in Caracas to issue protective measures in favor of Los Verdes residents.
At least 123 members of Venezuela’s Armed Forces, including officers and servicemen from lower ranks of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the National Guard, have been detained since anti-government protests started in early April, Reuters reported on July 6, based on exclusive access to official records. Almost 30 members of the military were detained for deserting or abandoning their post, nearly 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination, and most of the rest were charged with theft. The detainees are being held in three different prisons; most of them are held at the Ramo Verde military prison in the outskirts of Caracas, Reuters said.
At approximately 3 p.m. on May 2, intelligence agents stopped Wilmer Azuaje, a 40-year-old opposition legislator, and one of his staffers when they were driving in Barinas, Barinas State. The agents forced Azuaje out of the car, handcuffed him, and took him to the headquarters of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Services (SEBIN) in Barinas, his mother said in documents filed with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ombudsman Office days later. The agents did not have an arrest warrant, the documents said.
The mother waited for hours outside the SEBIN headquarters and never received confirmation that her son was being held there. At approximately 3:30 a.m. on May 3, she saw a van leave the headquarters and drive to the local airport, where she saw that the agents forced Azuaje and his staffer out of the van, and beat and kicked them brutally before making them board a plane that said “FANB,” the abbreviation for the Venezuelan Armed Forces, she said.
The family later found out that he was being held at the SEBIN headquarters in Caracas thanks to information provided by a family member of another prisoner held there, Azuaje’s brother in law told Human Rights. Fourty-five days after his detention, a video of Azuaje confirming that he was being held there was leaked to the public.
No family member nor lawyer has been able to see Azuaje since his detention and he has not been taken in front of a judge. Azuaje’s family filed an habeas corpus request before the Supreme Court, but there has been no response, according to his brother in law. Azuaje’s wife has repeatedly asked authorities for help, with no results.
On June 25, Azuaje, began a hunger strike to protest the abuses he has been suffering. Fourteen other prisoners being held at the SEBIN headquarters in Caracas, who say they have judicial release orders but intelligence agents refuse to let them go, are also carrying out a hunger strike.
On the evening of June 22, a group of more than 30 officers of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN) entered the home of Aristides Moreno, without a search warrant, the opposition leader María Corina Machado said on Twitter after having witnessed the events. Members of the opposition had met several times at Moreno’s home. The officers detained Moreno, together with others who were with him at the time, including Roberto Picon—an engineer who for years has advised the opposition on electoral matters—Machado said. Picón was coordinating the opposition’s technical support team since February.
On June 25, President Nicolás Maduro said on television that, days earlier, security forces had seized two servers in which “a hacking, intervention, and sabotage process” of the electoral computer system was being organized. He accused Picon, whom he said was “very close” to opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, of directing the hacking attempt. The official TV channel, Venezolana de Televisión, reported that five people had been detained and were “cooperating with the investigation.”
On June 26, Picon was brought before a military court, and a military prosecutor charged him with rebellion, treason, and “stealing military objects,” according to a source close to the family and news accounts. Picon is currently being held at SEBIN headquarters in Caracas.
The Supreme Court vs the Attorney General
On June 27, the Supreme Court issued two rulings that undermine the powers of Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has been openly questioning the Maduro government’s abusive policies and practices. The first granted the Ombudsman Office—which has failed to act as a check on the executive—powers to participate in criminal investigations, and the second removed the deputy attorney general, who had been recently appointed by Ortega, from office.
The attorney general responded accusing the Supreme Court of violating the Constitution and saying that there’s “state terrorism [in Venezuela], given that in this country demonstrations are cruelly repressed, civilians are tried in military courts, searches are conducted without judicial warrants, and there is no access to evidence that exists against people who have allegedly committed a crime.” She also stated that, “the right to participate and to choose has been undermined by the government.”
On June 28, the Supreme Court issued precautionary measures, forbidding Ortega from leaving the country and freezing her assets and bank accounts. The measures were issued at the request of a pro-government legislator in the context of an ongoing investigation of Ortega’s “alleged commission of serious errors in the exercise of her job.” A hearing to evaluate whether a trial against Ortega proceeds is scheduled to take place on July 4.
On June 24, the Washington Post reported on grave abuses suffered by detainees in Venezuela. The cases described include the prosecution of civilians by military courts and allegations of death threats, arbitrary arrests of bystanders, beatings and sometimes other forms of physical and sexual abuses, and forcing detainees to eat pasta with excrement. Allegations of mistreatment have “ballooned,” the article says, citing human rights groups.
On June 22, a Venezuelan military police sergeant shot a protester, David José Valenilla, 22, through the fence of an airbase in Caracas, raising the death toll during the protests to at least 76 people, Reuters reported. The moment of the shooting was caught on tape by VivoPlay, a local online news outlet:
Valenilla suffered wounds to the lungs and heart, a doctor who attended him told Reuters, and the Attorney General’s Office confirmed he was shot three times, says Reuters. An opposition lawmaker said the military official fired rubber bullets at point blank range towards Valenilla. Reuters quoted the interior minister claiming that the sergeant “used an unauthorized weapon to repel the attack” and he faced legal proceedings.
Venezuelan Immigration to Argentina
The number of Venezuelans moving legally to Argentina has more than doubled every year since 2014, reaching a total of 35,600 in May 2017, immigration authorities told Human Rights Watch.
In 2014, 2,600 Venezuelans obtained authorization to stay in Argentina, 5,800 did so in 2015, 12,800 in 2016, and 14,400 did so between January and May 2017. Immigration authorities told Human Rights Watch that there are even more Venezuelans in the country, including those who have yet to file their paperwork and others who began the process but do not have all documentation necessary to request their legal permits. Several Venezuelans told Human Rights Watch that it has become extremely difficult to get the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Ministry to provide the legal certification (or apostille) of Venezuelan documents that Argentine authorities require.
Here are some accounts relayed to Human Rights Watch of Venezuelans who fled the crisis and are now living in Buenos Aires:
Gabriel Betancourt, a 23-year-old recent law graduate and activist with the opposition party Popular Will, said that he coordinated Popular Will’s work in low-income neighborhoods in Caracas, including the distribution of medicines to those in need, and contributed to organizing anti-government demonstrations. In May 2016, another opposition activist publicly thanked him for his work for the first time—until then, his work had been very low-profile. Betancourt then started receiving threatening text messages telling him to “be careful,” he said.
The following month, Betancourt attended an anti-government demonstration near his home. When he tried to stop members of the National Guard from detaining someone he knew, the officers handcuffed him and threw him inside an official vehicle, he said. They pointed a gun at his head and threatened to kill him, tried to choke him, and stuck a nail into one of his fingers. “You will see what’s good,” Betancourt said they told him. Betancourt was driven to a pro-government neighborhood, where the vehicle stopped in front of a supermarket, he said, and he heard people scream, “Kill him!”
Betancourt was driven to a former police headquarters from which, he said, members of an armed pro-government group operated. When they arrived, members of the National Guard kicked him in the back to get him out of the vehicle and forced him into a room where three other men were locked inside what looked like a cage, he said. The officers asked the three men if they were chavistas, and then told them, “Here’s an escuálido!”—a pejorative term for members of the opposition. National Guardsmen stole Betancourt’s personal belongings, including his watch and wallet, forced him to kneel in the urine and excrement covering the floor, and repeatedly beat him. Members of the armed pro-government group witnessed the abuses, and threatened him with their firearms, Betancourt said.
Betancourt was again forced into an official vehicle, where an officer continued to beat him with a wooden stick. National Guardsmen drove him back to where the demonstration had taken place, and the officers let him go. Betancourt said he fled home, and then went to see a doctor. Two medical reports reviewed by Human Rights Watch, including an official one from the Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office, confirm he had bruises on his neck, arms, wrists, and right ankle. The official medical report also mentions an injury to a finger.
That same day, Betancourt filed a complaint requesting that the Attorney General’s Office investigate the incident, according to official documentation reviewed by Human Rights Watch. In Buenos Aires, several months later, Betancourt told Human Rights Watch he did not know what had happened with the investigation, and feared asking anyone to check its status.
Betancourt said he spent some time hiding, and decided to leave the country after he suspected he was being followed and his mother received death threats. He arrived in Buenos Aires in August, thanks to a friend who paid for his ticket and offered him a place to stay.
Betancourt lives with his girlfriend, Giovanna Battista, a 23-year-old recent graduate who studied international relations and moved to Buenos Aires in December to be able to work in her field.
Anacelis Alfaro, a 51-year-old activist from the opposition party Popular Will who earned her living organizing events for a private university in Lara State, gave a speech in December 2016 celebrating the role of women in politics, mentioning jailed politician Leopoldo López, and urging hope in what she called grim times. A few days later, while she was out of town, police showed up at her home with a warrant to look for “posters and signs” and any other evidence of “criminal interest.” The warrant didn’t specify the crime. A neighbor warned Alfaro, a friend fetched her passport, and—after a week hiding in friends’ homes—she was able to fly to Buenos Aires. There, after months of getting her papers in order and seeking work, she now cooks in a fast food restaurant. “I felt like a coward,” Alfaro said, tears welling as she recalled her exodus. But she added, “I didn’t want to be in jail, because in jail, I am useless.”
Napoleón Lazardi, a 27-year old economist and opposition activist, said he fled Caracas in May 2017 when he started receiving death threats after publishing open letters to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the Venezuelan Armed Forces criticizing the situation in the country. Lazardi said he had been included in a government list of political opponents banned from purchasing flights from the government-owned airline Conviasa. Leaving home with US$100, Lazardi took a nine-day bus trip to reach Buenos Aires, where he is now living off of friends’ hospitality while searching for a job.
Jorge Pérez (pseudonym), a retired university professor who used to work at the National Electoral Council, moved to Buenos Aires in October 2016, following his 20-year-old daughter who decided to flee insecurity and the prospect of not being able to earn enough money to cover her expenses when she graduated from the university. Pérez said in Venezuela he had to spend hours standing in line to buy food, which he didn’t always get, and to change the dose of his medicines for hypertension because he often couldn’t find the one he needed. Pérez, his wife, and daughter have obtained legal permits to stay in Argentina, despite delays caused by the difficulty of obtaining all documentation from Venezuela. He’s now teaching in Buenos Aires, and his daughter is studying communications at a local university while working in a nail salon.
Patients with HIV
On June 21, The Globe and Mail published this moving piece about the devastating impact of the health crisis on patients with HIV. While Venezuela used to be a model—with a free, public treatment for HIV since 1999—, today there are no HIV tests available in the public system, patients are spreading the virus to sex partners due to limited availability of condoms, and pregnant women are passing the virus on to their babies, the article says. Moreover, the national program has a limited availability of medicine to treat patients, “which means that people living with the virus not only aren’t getting treated, they are developing drug resistant strains of HIV.” And, The Globe and Mail reports, hospitals face shortages of “the most basic drugs to treat the infections that plague patients who can’t get anti-retrovirals.” The consequence, the paper says, is that by the time the crisis starts being resolved, “thousands of people will have died needlessly, and this country will once again have an out-of-control epidemic, as it did 30 years ago.”
When I was reporting on the HIV pandemic in Africa 15 years ago, Venezuela's AIDS program was a… https://t.co/UB1EhYI4Ou
On June 15, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published information on the risks that journalists face covering ongoing demonstrations in Venezuela. For periodic updates and safety information for local and international journalists covering the protests, examples of the sort of attacks and harassment suffered by journalists in recent weeks, and a list of medical facilities in case of emergency, click here.
With President Maduro apparently determined to hold on to power at all costs, the likelihood of a peaceful transition could depend on how far the country’s security forces are willing to go to keep him in power, said José Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson in an op-ed published by Foreign Policy.
Cancun, the OAS, and Venezuela’s Prosecutor General
On June 19 at 2 pm EST, the OAS will carry out a meeting of foreign ministers to continue their discussion of the situation in Venezuela that began in a previous meeting on May 31. The live webcast of the meeting is available here.
Given the relevance of Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz’s contribution since late March, and the degree of exposure she is facing, the regional community should recognize that Ortega is a credible interlocutor, José Miguel Vivanco and Tamara Taraciuk Broner said in an op-ed published today by the Caracas Chronicles. During the upcoming OAS General Assembly meeting in Mexico, OAS states should request an official report from the prosecutor general with information on actions by security forces and armed pro-government groups that may constitute human rights violations, the Supreme Tribunal’s lack of judicial independence, and her arguments against the Constituent Assembly promoted by the government, the op-ed says.
High-level Venezuelan officials bear responsibility for pervasive, serious abuses being committed under their watch, Human Rights Watch said today. These officials have failed to take steps to prevent or punish human rights violations committed by their subordinates, Human Rights Watch said.
Venezuelan NGOs ask peers for help
On June 12, 61 Venezuelan civil society groups published a statement asking their peers in the region to speak up about the Venezuelan government’s abuses and attempts to undermine democracy. The organizations say they support dialogue initiatives but call on civil society organizations in the region to “advocate for serious negotiations with deadlines, agenda, and guarantees, which serves to build a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis, within the framework of the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999.” The Maduro administration’s proposal to adopt a new constitution poses a “threat of the republic’s dissolution,” the organizations say, and they ask for the publication of an electoral timetable and early presidential elections, release of political prisoners and end of political disqualifications, respect for the existing Constitution and the National Assembly, provision of humanitarian aid to mitigate the shortages of food and medicine, and disarmament of “paramilitary gangs acting under government orders.”
On June 11, The Economist published this piece on the role of the Catholic Church in Venezuela’s crisis. The article says that Venezuelan bishops, some of whom met with Pope Francis on June 8, have consistently voiced concern about abuses and erosion of democratic guarantees in the country. However, the Pope’s stance has appeared to be softer to many Venezuelans, according to The Economist, which says as well that the Pope has now a unique opportunity to show the world that he can listen to the prelates and start sending tough messages to President Maduro.
Harrassing Human Rights Defenders
On June 7, the influential Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello said in his weekly TV show that human rights defenders who traveled to Geneva for the ongoing UN Human Rights Council session were “payed to discredit the Revolution before the UN.” He specifically named respected human rights defenders, whom he called “ringleaders” of the MUD, the umbrella that groups opposition political parties. He accused them of participating in a “parallel session” to present “deceitful reports” criticizing President Maduro’s proposal to adopt a new constitution and the repression against demonstrators.
On June 6, three Venezuelan human rights defenders participated with Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Edison Lanza, the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, in a side event in Geneva to discuss Venezuela’s crisis. After the event, two members of the Venezuelan Mission to the UN threatened them, saying they could recommend that the Venezuelan government take away their passports when they return to Venezuela. In recent weeks, the government has confiscated the passport of an opposition leader and Venezuelan journalists as they were attempting to leave the country.
Below is a statement published by Venezuelan NGOs on this incident:
On April 28, at 5:30 p.m., a group of men without uniform but who identified themselves as members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, DGCIM) arrived at Dan Zambrano’s home in Cagua, state of Aragua, Belkys Martínez, Zambrano’s wife, told Human Rights Watch. The officers told Zambrano, 34, that they had an order to take him in for interrogation in Maracay, the state capital. Before being driven away, Zambrano managed to send his wife a Facebook message letting her know he was being taken for questioning, and tweeted that DGCIM officers were taking him to their headquarters in Aragua.
Martínez visited every installation where she thought Zambrano could be held, including military headquarters, as well as offices of the intelligence services, the investigative police, and the Bolivarian National Police. Everywhere, officers told her that they had not detained anyone that day and Zambrano was not there, she said.
The following day, at 8 p.m., Zambrano called Martínez, said he was being held at DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, and asked her for clothes and personal items. Since then, Zambrano has been allowed to call his wife almost daily, and although he says he has not been mistreated, no family member nor lawyer has been allowed to see Zambrano since his detention, Martínez told Human Rights Watch.
In one of the calls, Zambrano told his wife that during his interrogation DGCIM officers said he had been detained for having tweeted against the government, and that “he should reflect on, and think very well, before writing.” The officers allegedly mentioned a reply Zambrano posted to a tweet by President Nicolás Maduro’s son, in which Zambrano said: “Unhappy bastard! Enjoy what you have left because what your shitty revolution stole from us, will be paid back!” They also allegedly referred to Zambrano’s retweets—which include, for example, cartoons making fun of a pro-government “digital militia,” videos of members of the Bolivarian National Police reportedly stealing from civilians, and tweets with videos accusing armed pro-government groups of using excessive force against demonstrators. At the time of his arrest, Zambrano had 300 followers; now, he has more than 3,400.
Since May 4, no one has questioned Zambrano, according to Martínez. He spends his days in a cell at DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, and has not been allowed to see the sun since his detention.
Martínez and representatives from Espacio Público, a Venezuelan non-profit group that works on freedom of expression issues and is providing legal support in this case, have said that Zambrano has never been brought before a prosecutor or judge, nor charged with any crime.
“They have him kidnapped,” Martínez told Human Rights Watch.
Stories behind the Deaths: Yoiner Peña
Yoiner Peña, 28, died on June 3 in Barquisimeto, Lara state. Peña had cerebral palsy, Yaneth Hernández, Peña’s mother, told Human Rights Watch. Although Peña could listen, he did not talk, and acted as “an innocent boy,” his mother said.
On April 10, Peña got off the public Metrobus close to a shopping mall on his way home, and found himself in the middle of an anti-government demonstration where he was shot in the side, according to his mother. The bullet damaged his back and colon, she said. Reports suggest that Peña may have been shot by an armed pro-government group but no determination has been made. A lawyer from Movimiento Vinotinto, a local human rights group, told Human Rights Watch that an armed pro-government group burst into the demonstration in plain sight of members of the Bolivarian National Guard right before Peña and another man, Keiner Adrián Díaz Medina, a demonstrator, were shot. Díaz Medina was shot in the shoulder and is now out of danger.
Peña was first taken to a hospital where he was denied treatment because he had been injured during “guarimbas,” a pejorative term used by government supporters to describe the opposition demonstrations, family members told the Movimiento Vinotinto. He was soon taken to another hospital, where he spent 54 days and doctors did everything they could to assist him, Peña’s mother told Human Rights Watch. Details of the exact cause of death are incomplete, but according to Peña’s mother, doctors told her he would have survived if they had had the medicines they needed to treat him, including basic antibiotics to treat an infection of his injury.
“I don’t know who shot him,” his mother said. “All I ask for is justice.”
Army Officers Jailed
On June 6, Reuters reported that at least 14 army officers were arrested on suspicion of “rebellion” and “treason” in the first week of protests against the Maduro administration. Reuters says it had access to documents that said the cases were being “processed” and the soldiers, who include colonels and captains, are being held in the Ramo Verde military prison. Many more soldiers have been rounded up since April 8—the last date of the documents Reuters had access to—, according to opposition leaders and rights activists, Reuters said.
On June 2, the BBC published this video with strong images about children's malnutrition in Venezuela:
Homes on Fire in Mérida
On May 30, members of the Bolivarian National Guard threw teargas canisters indiscriminately to disperse an anti-government demonstration in Mérida, the local human rights group Promedehum reported. Some canisters were fired directly towards residences, Promedehum and a family member of neighbors told Human Rights Watch. Residents told Promedehum that several apartment buildings of the “Parque Las Américas” housing complex were set on fire, including some in which residents were inside, and that members of the National Guard also fired pellets with glass marbles directly into the apartments. The residents claim the fire was caused by the canisters; the governor cited a firefighters’ report that said the cause of fire was “indeterminate.” Here are some photographs taken by Promedehum staff:
Other teargas canisters entered a pre-school in the area, Promedehum said. Although there were no children inside at the time, several staff members hid in the restrooms. Here’s a picture shared by a resident:
A few young men who were not participating in the protests were detained by security forces, including at least one who was beaten and held for two hours inside an official vehicle but eventually released in exchange of giving security agents his cell phone, a Promedehum lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
On May 31, 2017, the Organization of American States will carry out a meeting of foreign affairs ministers to address the situation in Venezuela. At the meeting, the region must press the Maduro administration to end the repression, release political prisoners, carry out free and fair elections, restore the independence of the legislature and judiciary, and allow sufficient international humanitarian aid into the country.
The meeting will be broadcasted live via the OAS website, here, at 2 pm EST.
Harassing Opposition Activists Abroad
On January 10, 2017, Paulina Facchin, a representative of the Venezuelan opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) in Peru, was interviewed by a Peruvian journalist while standing in line in front of the Venezuelan embassy in Lima. Facchin told Human Rights Watch she had received a standard notice from Venezuelan authorities in Caracas saying that her passport was ready for pick-up, and was waiting in line to get it. During the interview, Facchin spoke with the journalist about current Venezuelan political affairs and was very critical about the situation in Venezuela, specifically mentioning the existence of political prisoners, high inflation rates, insecurity, and the humanitarian crisis.
On January 16, the Venezuelan ambassador in Lima asked a prosecutor to open a criminal investigation into the journalist’s responsibility for “promoting and inciting a hostile and discrediting environment for the diplomatic representation of Venezuela,” citing the interview with Facchin, which was later broadcasted on TV. The document, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, accused Facchin of having “incited hatred.” The prosecutor’s office opened the investigation in February, but it was later closed without bringing charges, Facchin told Human Rights Watch.
In February, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello said on his weekly TV show that an anonymous patriotic informant, called “Patriot Pisco,” had provided him information regarding the whereabouts of opposition legislator Freddy Guevara during his visit to Lima that month. Guevara, who was elected to the National Assembly as a MUD representative in December 2015, had traveled to Lima to meet with Peruvian members of Congress. Cabello said that during Guevara’s visit to Lima Facchin had driven him around; Cabello also showed a picture of her car and its license plates on TV, and told the audience that she lived two blocks away from the hotel where Guevara had allegedly stayed. After the show, the Peruvian Foreign Affairs Ministry stated in a press release that following Guevara around during his visit to Peru was “unacceptable in a democratic system that respects the rule of law.”
As of May, Facchin had not been able to get her Venezuelan passport. She told Human Rights Watch that embassy staff said her passport is not there.
Cáritas on Children’s Malnutrition
This report by Cáritas Venezuela, based on the evaluation of 2,267 children under 5 years old in Caracas and three states (Miranda, Vargas, and Zulia), concluded that 10.2 percent of children had moderate or severe malnutrition, 12 percent had mild malnutrition, 26 percent were at risk of malnutrition and were already showing symptoms, and 52 percent were receiving proper nutrition. Most children with severe malnutrition are under 2 years old, Cáritas found. Cases of severe malnutrition increased from 8.9 percent in the last trimester of 2016 to 10.2 percent in the first two months of 2017—putting Venezuela above the World Health Organization limit of what constitutes a crisis, according to Cáritas. The percentage of families who have modified their eating habits—by, for example, only feeding some members of the family, not eating for an entire day, or eating less—increased from 77 percent in 2016 to 82 percent in 2017, says the report.
For a good explanation on why Venezuelans can’t feed themselves adequately, read this piece by the Washington Post:
This piece by Time includes photographs by eight Venezuelan photographers who have described the story behind each image. They illustrate some of the most dramatic aspects of Venezuela’s crisis, including, for example, indiscriminate use of force by security forces, crowded lines to purchase basic foods, people eating from trash, and deaths as a consequence of illnesses that had been eradicated but can no longer be treated.
Venezuela is in free-fall. Local photographers chronicling their country's collapse share their tales. https://t.co/CT2BHcEpFE
On May 24, members of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police used force to disperse an anti-government demonstration in the Bello Monte neighborhood in Caracas, Mildred Manrique, a Venezuelan journalist who was covering the protest, told Human Rights Watch. Incidents broke out when protesters started hurling back the teargas bombs that security agents had thrown towards them, Manrique said.
At approximately 4 pm, members of the National Guard arrived in motorcycles at the area where a group of journalists, including Manrique, were standing. There were at least five journalists standing behind a wall to protect themselves, and seven others across the street. They all had their journalist IDs on them and were wearing vests that said “press,” Manrique said. The security agents turned towards them and shot teargas bombs directly at the journalists, who were filming the incidents, and one of the bombs hit Manrique on her chest, she said. She was protected by the vest, so it bounced on to her arm, burning her elbow, according to Manrique. Another teargas bomb hit a journalist’s testicles, she said. Volunteers from the Green Cross who have been providing emergency care during the protests helped Manrique at the scene, and she continued working.
Soon after, Manrique saw a person standing among of the demonstrators start shooting into the air. When some demonstrators saw him, they started running after him, but the man ran towards the Bolivarian National Guard, and left the scene on an official motorcycle, Manrique told Human Rights Watch.
Here’s the video that Manrique was filming when she was hit:
On May 21, as part as an investigation into state actions to provide health services for children, IPYS Venezuela published a detailed report documenting that vaccines are not reaching children who need them. Based on official sources and on the ground research, IPYS concludes that the government did not have enough vehicles to transport available vaccines nor adequate refrigeration for them in several locations. A prior publication from the same series, available here, reports that 70 percent of medical equipment bought by the government from Argentina to provide obstetrics and neonatal care have not been adequately maintained, at a time when infant mortality and the deficit of doctors is increasing.
On May 24, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz gave a press conference in which she said that, since early April, 55 people were killed—52 civilians and 3 public officials—and 1,000 people—771 civilians and 229 public officials—were injured in Venezuela. The Attorney General’s Office is carrying out 1,479 investigations into incidents of violence, including 1,349 cases of crimes against people; it has charged 19 public officials for their alleged responsibility in the violation of human rights; and 18 arrest warrants have been issued but the suspects have not yet been detained, she said. Ortega stated that Juan Pernalete—a protester who died on April 26—was hit by a teargas bomb, contradicting the government’s account that he had been shot. Her office is also carrying out 16 investigations into the responsibility of civilian armed groups that “promote violence” and had received information about the participation of military officials in looting incidents, Ortega said. Finally, she made three important points: 1) In relation to military trials of civilians, she said “people have the right to be tried by their natural judges,” 2) “Peaceful demonstrations are a right and the State must guarantee it,” and 3) “There must be freedom to profess any political tendency.” Pretty clear.
Fiscal General @lortegadiaz: Las manifestaciones pacíficas son un derecho y el Estado debe garantizarlo
On May 18, María González, an indigenous woman from the Wayuu group who lives in Zulia state, told NTN24 that members of the National Guard had tied her 11-year-old son’s hands behind his back and placed a “bomb” on his back, which caused burns on his back, arms, and eyes. A video posted on YouTube the night before, filmed by neighbors who say they found the boy, shows him with his arms tied behind his back and includes images of his burnt back. In another video, aired by NTN, the neighbors show a teargas bomb that allegedly exploded on the boy’s back. A doctor who treated the boy told NTN24 and a local newspaper that the boy had suffered first and second degree burns that did not require hospitalization but needed to be treated, and were consistent with the boy’s description of what had happened to him.
The Attorney General’s Office issued a press release confirming it was investigating the case. The statement says the boy had been close to a bakery when an “irregular situation” took place, and that “several people” had tied, beat, and burnt the boy’s back with an unnamed “device.”
Getting Medicine into Venezuela
On May 16, The Associated Press published this piece explaining the difficult work carried out by nongovernmental organizations to bypass the Venezuelan government’s ban on humanitarian aid. While the Venezuelan people continue to suffer the consequences of severe shortages of medicine and medical supplies, and Venezuela’s foreign minister denies the humanitarian crisis that the country is facing, some groups such as Acción Solidaria have become “a lifeline for Venezuelans suffering from all kinds of illnesses,” reports the AP.
Peruvian officials have confirmed to Human Rights Watch that more than 10,000 Venezuelans have requested permission to stay in Peru in 2017, taking advantage of Peru’s welcoming policies. These policies reflect the Peruvian government’s understanding of the severity of Venezuela’s ongoing crisis and build upon the government’s efforts to press Venezuela to respect human rights and the rule of law.
In January 2017, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski adopted a decree that lays out a special permission for Venezuelans to stay in the country. The decree states that those Venezuelans who arrived in Peru before February 2—the date it entered into force—who do not have a criminal record, and whose legal permission to stay in the country had expired, may request a temporary residency permit that lasts one year. Those who obtain the permit are allowed to work, enroll their children in school, and have access to health care.
As of April 30, 5,834 Venezuelans had obtained their temporary residency permits, according to official data. The superintendent of immigration, who reports to the Interior Ministry, told Human Rights Watch that an additional 4,300 Venezuelans had requested an appointment online to obtain their permit by August. Venezuelans who entered Peru since February 3 are entitled to legally stay in the country for 183 days, and the government is evaluating measures to deal with that influx of Venezuelan immigration when that period expires, the superintendent said.
Most arrive by plane, although approximately 30 percent spend days traveling by bus to reach Peru, authorities told us. Here are some accounts relayed to Human Rights Watch by Venezuelans who fled the crisis and are now living in Lima:
Ludiskel Mass, 32, is a schoolteacher and was a student activist with the opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time). After spending a few months abroad in 2013, she returned to Maracaibo, Zulia state, where she was living in 2015 when she started having repeated instances of vaginal bleeding. Doctors told her they believed she had a cyst but that they lacked the medical supplies to provide a proper diagnosis, she said. Mass told Human Rights Watch she experienced regular bleeding and anemia over the next three months. She unsuccessfully tried to buy Vitamin K and contraceptive pills, which doctors had told her might help control the bleeding. In August 2015, two friends paid for her bus ticket to Lima, where she arrived after a six-day road trip, she said. In Peru, doctors diagnosed her with uterine cancer for which she underwent a successful operation, she told Human Rights Watch. At the time of the interview, she was cancer free. In September 2016, she was able to take her then 11- and 12-year old children to Lima. Mass has obtained her temporary residency permit.
Carlos Márquez (pseydonym), 59, an economist, arrived in Lima in April 2017. Márquez’s 24-year-old son was arrested during anti-government protests in 2014, beaten, and subsequently released on conditional liberty, Márquez told Human Rights Watch. The prosecutor eventually dropped the charges, he said. Members of the National Guard detained his son again in 2015 as he was walking in a public area, with no judicial order, he told us. One of the lawyers who worked on the case also affirmed that Márquez’s son was subject to arbitrary prosecution based on what he called planted evidence. Márquez said he spent all his savings to bribe the judge in charge of his son’s case so his son would be transferred out of a regular prison where he had suffered scabies and gastrointestinal problems. Márquez, whose son remains detained, arrived in Lima with plans to work in gastronomy. “I’m starting a new life at 59 to be able to help my family from here,” he said.
Kerwin Duarte, 26, left Barquisimeto, Lara state, in October 2016. A psychology student who worked at a store selling cooking utensils, Duarte told Human Rights Watch he had spent hours standing in line to buy food and left Venezuela due to high levels of insecurity and because “there is no future.” He took a bus to Colombia, and flew to Lima from there, he said. Duarte said he relied on the hospitality of a Peruvian man for a month, eating only bread. Now, in Lima, he rents a small apartment, sells arepas—the typical Venezuelan corn-flour dish—on the street, and says he makes enough for a living and to send between 20-30 dollars a week back home to help his family, including his grandmother who has hypertension and cannot afford the medicines she needs, when she finds them. Duarte obtained his temporary residency permit in March.
Leomar Rodríguez, 28, left Caracas in January 2017, soon after graduating from the university with a business major. Rodríguez told Human Rights Watch that in Venezuela, he ran his own business stamping t-shirts but, due to the economic crisis, he was no longer able to purchase the materials he needed to stamp the t-shirts, and his earnings were barely enough to afford food, which he bought after hours standing in line. Rodríguez arrived in Lima after a five-day road trip. He now sells arepas and tizana, a Venezuelan drink made of fruit juice with fruit salad in it, on the street. Rodríguez told Human Rights Watch he’s better off in Lima, where he can eat, there’s more security, and he can earn some money to send back home to help his parents and brothers who still live in Caracas.
Preparing Military Snipers
On May 18, the Spanish newspaper ABC published the audio of a taped conversation allegedly between a group of Venezuelan generals who discussed the use of military snipers in Venezuela. In the tape, one general reportedly said, “the moment will arrive in which we will have to employ [snipers] and I want to be prepared for that moment, because the president will not stay in a ´green phase,’ sirs, he’s already signed a series of operations.” He added, “we are at the beginning of an urban subversive war” and “the Armed Forces will have to solve this problem. So start getting those military officers who could operate as snipers ready.”
On May 19, the Caracas Chronicles published this piece by Francisco Toro, with a link to a longer version of the audio, which includes an interesting analysis of its content. Toro highlights that the tape shows that some of the generals are concerned about the consequences of using snipers, including the possibility of ending in jail. As Toro says, “it’s not that these guys have suddenly grown a conscience. It’s that they are scared.” The fact that these men are pushing back because they realize that shooting protesters is not in their best interest shows that an amnesty that excludes human rights abusers may be a good strategy to break their unity, says Toro.
On May 17, Venezuelan immigration authorities stopped journalist César Miguel Rondon at the Caracas airport when he was heading abroad to participate in a public event. This happened a day after President Maduro said on television that Rondon and another journalist had “promoted a persecution.” Rondon had commented on Twitter about cases in which Venezuelan government officials had been harassed by Venezuelan citizens abroad, Espacio Público reported. Rondon’s passport and that of his wife were annulled and he was not allowed to leave the country.
On May 18, Venezuelan immigration authorities confiscated the passport of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski at the Caracas airport, when he was heading to a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Capriles was not allowed to leave the country.
Here are some good sources from the human rights world that provide information on what’s happening in the interior of the country:
In Zulia state, CODHEZ is monitoring the protests and abuses against protesters. For a glimpse of the information they’ve gathered in April, please see this report and this special publication on the protests. @CODHEZ
In Mérida state, see what’s being reported by PROMEDEHUM, on Facebook and @promedehum, and the Human Rights Observatory of the Los Andes University, on their website or @uladdhh
In Carabobo state, you can review material published by CADEF (Centro de Acción y Defensa por los Derechos Humanos), here. @_cadef
Breaking into Homes in Valencia
On May 15, dozens of neighbors participated in an anti-government demonstration in Mañongo, a residential area of Valencia, Carabobo state. The demonstration consisted of cutting main roads, and was part of a nation-wide protest called “the Planton,” or sit-out. Around 4 pm, after the demonstration ended, a group of at least 50 members of the National Guard and the investigative police forcefully entered four residential buildings in the area, without a judicial order, claiming that they were looking for a sniper, a resident said. Several residents told Human Rights Watch that security agents used force to break into several apartments, and stole personal belongings, including cellphones, clothes, and cash. One said she saw an agent pointing a gun at a woman who was carrying a baby; others reported that agents beat residents and detained several residents as well as two people working at the buildings, without showing any judicial order.
About State Responsibility for Actions by “Colectivos”
A lot has been said about the existence of armed pro-government groups, called “colectivos,” that collaborate with Venezuelan security forces to repress peaceful protests, or operate with their acquiescence. Human Rights Watch has documented such cases since 2014. This interesting piece recently published by the Caracas Chronicles analyzes international human rights jurisprudence and concludes that the Venezuelan government is responsible for the crimes and abuses committed by these gangs. Food for thought.
New Accounts Describe Abusive Prosecution of Civilians by Military Courts
Joint Statement by the Venezuelan Penal Forum and Human Rights Watch
As of May 15, the Venezuelan Penal Forum has obtained information regarding the prosecution of at least 275 civilians by military courts in Venezuela. In all these cases, the Venezuelan Penal Forum has directly assisted detainees or verified information regarding the prosecutions through direct contact with family members. Human Rights Watch interviewed several of the lawyers representing detainees. The cases include the prosecution of 192 civilians in Carabobo state, 19 in Falcon state, 20 in Zulia state, 18 in Caracas, 13 in Lara state, 10 in Sucre state, two in Barinas state, and one in Táchira state. 159 of these defendants were in pretrial detention as of May 12. Detainees are being held in military prisons, prisons for detainees subject to military prosecution, high-security prisons, or in headquarters of the intelligence services.
While no public record of these proceedings is available—a problem in its own right—the accounts by lawyers and family members include many disturbing allegations of abuses and procedural defects in the conduct of these prosecutions, including the following:
Detainees being subjected to physical and other abuses that may in some cases amount to torture at the moment of their arrest or during detention.
Hearings being held in military courts or other military installations, presided over by military judges who report to the Minister of Defense, and sometimes in the presence of armed guards.
Judges charging large groups of protesters with crimes en masse, without any individualized consideration of the evidence against them.
Hearing times not being specified in advance, leaving independent lawyers and families waiting at the entrance of military facilities or courts for hours. Lawyers say that when hearings are held, they are sometimes not able to enter the courtroom; when they are allowed to enter, they often are only able to speak to detainees a few minutes before the hearings, only have access to the criminal file when they are at the hearing, and cannot take pictures or copies of the files.
Protesters being charged with serious crimes under the military code, such as “rebellion” and “treason,” for alleged acts of violence at protests.
Accounts of the proceedings provided by lawyers who attended the hearings
On May 5, 40 people who had been detained separately near a food company in Valencia, Carabobo state, which had been looted a day earlier, were brought before a military judge in an improvised courtroom inside military headquarters. The hearing started at 7 p.m. and lasted 12 hours. During the hearing, most detainees showed bruises that they said were caused by members of the National Guard who beat them, sometimes with an aluminum bar or a baseball bat. Some claimed the officers cut their hair during their detention. At least 15 said they were forced to eat raw pasta with human excrement—the officers allegedly put teargas powder in their noses so they would be forced to open their mouths to eat. Without individualizing the criminal responsibility of each, all 40 were charged with rebellion. The military judge admitted the charges against all, but sent only 19 to the high-security prison “26 of July” in Guárico state, without providing any explanation, the lawyer said. The others were released on conditional liberty.
On May 6, Carlos Sardi, a man who collaborates with local groups working with cancer patients and on LGBT rights, was detained while he was protesting with his wife in Valencia, Carabobo state. Sardi said that he was brutally beaten and forced to wear a black hood, while authorities he could not see asked him about people who had allegedly been involved in the protests. Prosecutors argued he had been in phone contact with other protesters, and was carrying Molotov cocktails, nails, and gasoline—evidence he claims was planted. Sardi was taken before a military court and charged with rebellion, treason, and contempt. A military judge ordered his pretrial detention in the “26 of July” security prison in Guárico state.
On May 9, 16 people who had been detained in different circumstances in La Villa de Rosario were brought together before a military court in Maracaibo, Zulia state. The detainees included a man who said he was walking home from work when he was picked up by the National Guard, and two brothers who said they were working on the roof of their home and were detained without a judicial order. Two others were reportedly taken from the hospital—one said he was there after suffering a domestic accident and the other said that he was a government supporter who had been hit by a bottle in a protest—to the offices of the investigative police to declare who had injured them, and were then detained. Eight of the 16 detainees claimed they were beaten by members of the National Guard when they were detained, and that the officers spread a white powder on their faces that caused a burning sensation and made them cry, which they described as being similar to the effect of teargas bombs. The lawyers who were able to enter the hearing—which took place inside a military installation—were searched by officers and were not allowed to take their cellphones or personal belongings into the hearing. There were no female officers, so female lawyers were physically searched by male military officers. On May 11, the prosecutor charged the 16 detainees with rebellion and insult to a sentinel, without specifying what each of them had done. The judge accepted the charges against all detainees, but ruled seven would be held in pretrial detention at the Santa Ana prison, an installation for people prosecuted in military courts, without providing any explanation for the distinction, the lawyer said. The rest were released on conditional liberty.
Sergio Contreras, an activist with the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) opposition party and a lawyer who taught at the Catholic University Andrés Bello, said that on May 10, he was beaten and detained by members of the Bolivarian National Police while he was demonstrating in Caracas. Contreras said he was speaking to a group of students with a megaphone. Contreras was taken before a military court on May 12 and charged with rebellion, treason, and “stealing military material” (based on a firearm he said was planted). The judge accepted the charges, ordered his pretrial detention, and sent him to the Ramo Verde military prison.
On May 11, Lisbeth Añez, an activist who has visited political prisoners detained in Venezuela, was arrested at the Caracas airport when she was boarding a flight to Miami. She was taken before a military court in Caracas a day later, and charged with rebellion and treason based on evidence that included alleged WhatsApp messages that lawyers say are not described in judicial documents, as well as books, letters, and recognitions of her social work. This evidence, according to the court, proved she was promoting violent acts, in light of the “notoriety” of the fact that Venezuelan protests are violent, the lawyers said. She was ordered detained at the headquarters of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Services in Caracas.
International human rights standards
Both Venezuelan and international law provide that civilians should not be prosecuted before military courts. The Venezuelan Constitution, in article 261, limits military jurisdiction to crimes that are of a military nature. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Venezuela ratified in 1978, guarantees the right to a timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. In 2015, the Human Rights Committee, the expert body charged with interpreting the ICCPR, expressed concern that military courts in Venezuela are competent to try civilians under certain circumstances and called on the Venezuelan government to “adopt the necessary measures to prohibit military courts from trying civilians.” Similarly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that military courts should not try civilians.
On May 12, 47 Venezuelan human rights organization published this press release criticizing the government’s decision to extend the presidential decree that had declared a “state of exception and economic emergency.” The decree was criticized by 125 Latin American and international organizations when it was adopted in May 2016 because it included vague language that would allow restricting basic rights and limit the ability of the opposition-led National Assembly and Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations to challenge abuses of power by the government. The state of exception has been extended six times without legislative approval, the press release says.
On May 11, the Venezuelan Society of Palliative Care published a letter stating that today in Venezuela there are no opioid medicines available to alleviate moderated to severe pain, and that health professionals have “no way of alleviating the suffering of so many patients who fight for their lives or are close to death.” The letter calls on Venezuelan authorities to ensure the availability of medicines to control pain, to comply with their obligation to respect the right to health. The full letter is available here:
Moving Forward, by the International Crisis Group
This piece by the International Crisis Group provides a comprehensive summary of the Venezuela crisis and explains two problematic measures adopted by the Venezuelan government recently: President Maduro’s proposal to create a Constitutional Assembly, and the his decision to withdraw from the OAS. It argues that “taken together, these two decisions mark the crossing of a threshold in Venezuela, and the abandonment of ‘revolutionary’ regime in Caracas of representative democracy.” The ICG describes a series proposals to move forward with a negotiated solution (as opposed to interminable dialogues) that includes an amnesty for certain government officials—excluding those responsible for drug-trafficking and grave human rights abuses—and an interim government of national unity, including some government officials, that would organize elections.
#Venezuela National Assembly should prepare amnesty law to reassure regime moderates & avoid transition witch-hunts
On May 5, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference issued a press release arguing that most Venezuelans perceive President Maduro’s proposal to draft a new constitution as a step that further undermines the rule of law provided for in the existing constitution. The statement says, “What the Venezuelan people need the most today is food, medicines, liberty, personal and juridical security, and peace, all of which would be achieved if the government respected the existing constitution.” It also calls for the end of repression, after describing the “repressive nature” of the government and excessive violence by security forces and armed groups called “colectivos” that act “under the protective watch” of authorities.
A similar line was adopted by Father Luis Ugalde, a Jesuit priest that is a former dean of the Catholic University Andrés Bello in Caracas, in this interview:
The Interpreter on Venezuela
Since the latest round of massive protests erupted in early April, The New York Times’ The Interpreter published two very good pieces worth reading. A first piece, published on April 1, describes how populism turned authoritarian in Venezuela, starting with the political takeover of the Supreme Court by President Hugo Chávez in 2004. Another article, published on May 6, analyzes the existing and potential fractures within political and military elites, including recent dissenting statements by the Venezuelan attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz.
On May 9, Reuters reported that, according to official data, in 2016 Venezuela’s infant mortality rates rose 30 percent, maternal mortality increased 65 percent, and cases of malaria jumped 76 percent. You can access the official reports by clicking here. This information is consistent with Human Rights Watch’s findings on the humanitarian crisis, available here.
IACHR Statement on Abuses Against Protesters
On May 9, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a public statement deploring “repressive measures taken by Venezuelan authorities in response to the wave of protests that began in March in the country.” The IACHR expressed concern regarding the number of deaths and injuries caused by firearms and the excessive use of other less lethal weapons, such as teargas and birdshot, and highlighted that hundreds of the nearly 2,000 detainees remained in custody. The commission has received allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security forces, and information that authorities are using the military criminal justice system to try civilians, it said. The IACHR condemned “any attempt by the Venezuelan authorities to prevent holding of elections” and deplored President Maduro’s unprecedented decision to denounce the OAS charter.
On May 4, the general commander of the Bolivarian National Guard, Antonio Benavides Torres, stated that a special operation ordered by President Nicolás Maduro would be carried out to prosecute, in military courts, civilians who had been detained two days earlier during protests in Carabobo state. The operation is part of the “Zamora Plan,” an initiative meant to address “internal and external attacks that threaten the country’s peace and sovereignty.” (For background on the Zamora Plan, with links to official sources, check out this outline prepared by the Human Rights Center of the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas).
Benavides Torres claimed 43 people had been “involved in serious crimes against the public order, such as looting, rebellion, and robbery and attack to a sentinel.” Francisco Ameliach, the governor of Carabobo who belongs to President Maduro’s political party, tweeted that “more than 70 hooligans” had been detained and taken before military courts, and authorities were “in search of intellectual authors and collaborators.”
On May 5, the interior and justice minister, Néstor Luis Reverol, tweeted that “military courts will be in charge of all investigations that are necessary of these TERRORISTS hired by the right” (caps in the original).
These actions occur days after Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz publicly criticized policies by the Maduro administration and requested courts to release 38 people detained by the National Guard in Nueva Esparta, arguing that the police report on their detention did not specify why they had been detained.
Local human rights groups have confirmed that dozens of civilians have been prosecuted by military courts. In one case, at least 19 were prosecuted days ago for “rebellion” and “contempt.” The military court rejected the defense’s argument that they did not have jurisdiction to try civilians. Armed military officials stood guard inside the courtroom.
Both Venezuelan and international law provide that civilians should not be prosecuted before military courts. The Venezuelan Constitution, in article 261, limits military jurisdiction to crimes that are of a military nature. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Venezuela ratified in 1978, guarantees the right to a timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. In 2015, the Human Rights Committee, the expert body charged with interpreting the ICCPR, expressed concern that military courts in Venezuela are competent to try civilians under certain circumstances and called on the Venezuelan government to “adopt the necessary measures to prohibit military courts from trying civilians.” Similarly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that military courts should not try civilians.
To see OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s statement on the use of military courts against civilians, click here.
A good way to understand what’s happening in Venezuela is to see it with your own eyes. The Financial Times has published this piece and video with an excellent overview of the crisis, including testimony from government supporters and former government supporters, as well as information on pro-government armed groups of civilians called “colectivos.” A recent in-depth article and video by the Wall Street Journal, available here, provides a thorough and moving description of the food crisis and the difficulty that Venezuelans are facing to feed their families. For Human Rights Watch reporting on the humanitarian crisis, including a video report on food and health shortages, see here.
Please read this story, and look at the pictures to understand Venezuela's collapse. I cried editing this. https://t.co/Lu4jk2In2K via @WSJ
Letter to President Maduro requesting authorization to visit Leopoldo López
On May 5, Human Rights Watch requested authorization to President Nicolás Maduro to visit Leopoldo López in the Ramo Verde military prison. López has not received visits from his family or lawyer since early April. The full letter in English is available here and in Spanish, here.
Updated Data: Deaths, Injuries, Detentions as of May 4
Between April 1-May 4, 35 people died in the context of demonstrations—18 in Caracas, six in Carabobo state, five in Lara state, two in Mérida state, two in Miranda state, one in Barinas state, and one in Táchira state, the Attorney General’s Office reported. A total of 717 people were injured in demonstrations nation-wide, including 329 cases in which there were allegations of violations of basic rights, the office said.
On May 4, the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a nongovernmental organization that provides legal support to detainees nation-wide, reported that 1,708 people had been arrested during demonstrations that started on April 4, and that 596 of them remained in detention.
On May 4, eight Latin American governments—Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Paraguay—issued a statement deploring the violence in Venezuela that has led to deaths and hundreds of injured people. The statement condemns the excessive use of force by authorities against the civilian population, called on the Venezuelan government to respect the human rights of its citizens, and highlighted the need to organize elections, release political prisoners, restore the powers of the National Assembly, and guarantee the separation of powers. The statement is available in Spanish here, and in Portuguese here.
The role of Venezuela’s armed forces
On May 4, The Economist published an interesting article examining the critical role the Venezuelan military is playing in the current crisis. Check it out here:
In the evening of May 3, a Venezuelan journalist and a US senator tweeted that Leopoldo López had been transferred to a military hospital in delicate health conditions. Around 11 p.m., Diosdado Cabello, the powerful Chavista politician, showed what he called a “proof of life” video in his weekly TV show, allegedly filmed two hours earlier, in which López tells his family that he is alright and does not know why he is filming the video.
López has been unable to see his family or lawyer since early April. Although his wife and mother visited the military hospital where he had reportedly been transferred as well as the prison where he is being held on May 3 at night and in the morning of May 4, they were unable to see or talk to him.
Repression on May 3
At least 200 people were injured during clashes that erupted during a demonstration in Caracas on May 3 against the Maduro administration, Reuters reported. Thousands had marched peacefully until they were blocked by security forces. The death toll during incidents in Venezuela rose to 34, Reuters said.
Barbarie en Venezuela. Países de la OEA y alto comisionado de Naciones Unidas deben exigir cese inmediato de represión. https://t.co/XcAnwTYEGK
There are more than 140 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal support to detainees. Human Rights Watch has documented that judicial processes in several of these cases violate the most basic due process rights, and prosecutions have been based on non-existent or fabricated evidence. These cases, however, also have a dramatic impact on the lives of the detainees’ families. Here are some videos in which the wives of five men who have been detained and prosecuted for political reasons in Venezuela share their stories:
Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo López, explains here the impact that her husband’s detention has had on her life and on their two children, and shows here images of one of several days in which she and her children were not allowed to visit López in jail. For additional information on López’s case and detention conditions, see here and here.
Rosaura Valenti, the wife of Yon Goicoechea, explains here her husband’s detention conditions, and describes here that she and her son were unable to visit him. For additional information on Yon Goicoechea’s case, see here.
Patricia Gutiérrez de Ceballos, the wife of Daniel Ceballos, explains here the impact that her husband’s detention has had on their children and describes their prison visits. For additional information on Ceballo’s case, see here.
Silvia Martínez, the wife of Braulio Jatar, describes here her search for her husband when he was detained and here the lack of evidence against him and his health condition while in detention. For additional information on Jatar’s case, see here.
Mizty Capriles de Ledezma, the wife of Antonio Ledezma, explains how difficult her husband’s detention has been for her and her daughters here. For additional information on Ledezma’s case, see here.
Statement on Maduro's Constituent Assembly Proposal
On May 1, President Nicolas Maduro announced that his government will organize elections to establish a constituent assembly and draft a new constitution. But what he should be doing now -- without any further delay-- is upholding the rights enshrined in the existing constitution, which was enacted by his predecessor Hugo Chavez and contains basic guarantees that his government is violating. The solution to Venezuela's crisis requires setting a date for overdue regional elections, releasing political prisoners, restoring the independence of the judiciary and the National Assembly's powers, and accepting desperately-needed international humanitarian aid. Maduro's proposal to write a new constitution should not be allowed to distract from his flagrant disregard for the rights enshrined in the existing one.
This year, major newspapers worldwide have published editorials on the Venezuela crisis. They have addressed issues ranging from the humanitarian crisis to the need to release political prisoners and restore powers to the National Assembly. Many editorials have supported the OAS process to evaluate Venezuela's compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter and called for increased international and multilateral pressure on the Maduro administration. For a list of editorials published in 2017, with links to access them, please see here.
Detentions by Intelligence Agents
In August 2016, intelligence agents detained Yon Goicoechea, an activist of the Popular Will opposition party, as he was driving to a press conference about an opposition rally scheduled for the following month. Goicoechea’s family and lawyer received no official information about his whereabouts for more than 56 hours. A judge subsequently charged Goicoechea with several crimes and ordered his pretrial detention. He has since been detained at one of the headquarters in Caracas of the Bolivarian Intelligence Services for almost eight months, despite the fact that the Attorney General’s Office decided not to press charges on October 17, 2016, and a court ordered his release three days later, according to official documentation reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
There have been reports of at least 17 other cases in which people are being detained by intelligence services, even after a court has ordered their release.
On April 26, two experts on freedom of expression of the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights criticized acts of censorship and internet blocking in Venezuela, as well as the detention, attacks, and stigmatization of journalists and media workers covering protests in Venezuela.
At least 12 Venezuelan and international journalists have been detained, some for hours and others for days, according to the statement. Journalist Braulio Jatar, who was detained after his independent news outlet reported on a protest against President Maduro in September 2016, remains in detention.
Venezuela: Al menos doce periodistas han sido detenidos en el marco de los actuales acontecimientos: https://t.co/NVNKdFZ8yU
At least three online platforms offering news and information of public interest in Venezuela have been blocked by private internet service providers, in response to orders by the National Telecommunications Commission, said the UN and IACHR experts. And at least three international news channels suffered interruptions to their transmissions or had their signals suspended.
For updated information on attacks against journalists and the press, visit the Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público’s website.
Official Data: Deaths, Detentions, Injuries
Between April 3-25, 26 people died in Venezuela in “violent incidents,” 437 were injured, and 1.289 were detained, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said. An official list of those who died, most of whom were killed with gunshots, is available here. The attorney general reported that 65 people were in pretrial detention and 217 others would be taken before a judge on April 25.
On April 24, 16 OAS member states requested a meeting of the organization’s Permanent Council to approve a resolution that will decide to organize a special meeting of foreign ministers to address the situation in Venezuela. It cites OAS charter provisions that allow for such meetings to consider “urgent problems” that are of “common interest.” The meeting will take place on Wednesday, April 26 at 4 pm local time.
Meanwhile, on April 25, the Venezuelan foreign affairs minister warned that if the OAS foreign affairs ministers meet without Venezuela’s consent, the government would withdraw from the OAS—note, however, that under OAS Charter rules (art. 143) that decision would only enter into effect two years later.
The Venezuelan minister also said the Venezuelan government was organizing another extraordinary meeting of foreign affairs minister to denounce “the opposition violence.” Only members of allied governments belonging to another regional organization called CELAC were invited to this one. The meeting is scheduled to take place on May 2.
International community must confront the scourge of Maduro
The nurses spoke a foreign language, and narrow beds crowded the stuffy ward, but María gazed blissfully into her newborn Sasha’s eyes. María was far from family and friends, but she’d made it to a land of relative plenty — rich with diapers and cooking oil.
Covering Venezuela for Human Rights Watch these past eight years, I’ve watched the country tailspin into repression and privation. In recent weeks, security forces have used excessive force and fired teargas indiscriminately against anti-government protesters, and the Supreme Court effectively shut down Congress — although it later reverted part of its ruling, at the president’s request. There’s little doubt that the Maduro administration looks more and more like a full-fledged dictatorship. My story shows disturbing parallels with the Latin American dictatorships of yesteryear, said Tamara Taraciuk Broner in an article published by the Miami Herald.
Often, Venezuelan authorities have imposed bans on visits to Leopoldo López—the opposition leader who was arbitrarily detained and convicted to almost 14 years in prison—by his family or lawyers. The most recent ban, his wife reports, has been in place for a month. Instead of questioning the ban, Venezuela’s ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, said he had “mediated” with the government, and told López’s family they would be able to see him after his “sanction” ended. This just adds to the list of abuses Saab has failed to speak up about, and has made more than 100 Venezuelan NGOs call for his resignation.
The International Migration Organization reported that as of 2015, 606.281 people had left Venezuela, while the World Bank says there were 655.400, according to CNN. A joint statement by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says that the amount of asylum applications filed by Venezuelans increased by 8.8 percent—while, in 2012, 505 Venezuelans had applied, the number of Venezuelans who did so in 2016 reached 34.200.
A review of official sources shows an increase of Venezuelan immigration in different countries:
In Argentina, the number of temporary residencies granted to Venezuelans increased from 1.777 in 2014 to 4.707 in 2015. Argentine immigration authorities told Human Rights Watch that 12,800 Venezuelans obtained legal permits to stay in Argentina in 2016, and 14,400 did so between January and May 2017.
In Brazil, as of December 31, 2016, 4,670 Venezuelans had requested asylum in Brazil since 2012. The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in Brazil increased from 54 in 2013 to 208 in 2014, 825 in 2015, and 2,595 between January and December 1, 2016. There are more than 4,000 Venezuelans in a waiting list to file asylum applications in Brazil.
In Chile, the number of visas granted to Venezuelans (including student, work, and temporary visas) increased from 1.463 in 2013, to 2.874 in 2014, and to 8.381 in 2015.
In Mexico, in 2014, 56 Venezuelans requested asylum and nine were granted asylum; in 2015, 57 requested asylum and 26 were granted asylum; and in 2016, 361 requested asylum and 296 were granted asylum.
In Peru, the number of Venezuelans who requested a foreigner’s ID increased from 180 in 2013 to 550 in 2014, 1.445 in 2015, and 1.543 in 2016.
In the United States, in 2014 Venezuela entered the list of “Leading Nationalities for Asylum Applications filed with USCIS.” In December 2014, the US received 395 applications, in December 2015 it received 958, and in December 2016 it received 2.334. In December 2016, it was the first country in the list.
In Uruguay, a total of 2.448 Venezuelans obtained Mercosur residency permits in 2015 and 2016, according to official information provided by immigration authorities to Human Rights Watch.
On April 21, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that 3.960 Venezuelans had requested asylum in 2016—a seven-fold increase from 2015, when 585 Venezuelans had done so. More Venezuelans sought asylum in Spain during that year than nationals of any other country. According to official sources reviewed by Human Rights Watch, 124 Venezuelans had requested asylum in Spain in 2014, up from 35 in 2013 and 28 in 2012.
Today, the Venezuelan opposition organized “The National Plantón,” a demonstration that consists of sitting on the streets and closing down main roads in various cities. For updated information and pictures on what’s happening in different parts of the country, visit NTN24’s website.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have reached a breaking point over the country's humanitarian and political crisis poured into the streets all over the country on Wednesday. They demanded that the government let aid enter Venezuela to help the many people who are desperate for food and medicine. They demanded that the government hold elections, free political prisoners, and reestablish judicial independence and the powers of the National Assembly.
The Venezuelan government's harsh reaction -- complete with a show of force -- was a hugely irresponsible replay of its response to previous protests. The government's response to these protests is further evidence of the need for strong international pressure, especially from other states in the region, to push for the restoration of human rights and democracy in Venezuela -- and a demonstration of the potential cost of a failure to act, said José Miguel Vivanco and Tamara Taraciuk Broner in an op-ed published by CNN.
Looting and Death in Caracas Slum
On the evening of April 20, incidents of looting began in El Valle, a hillside slum area in Caracas, according to the Caracas Chronicles. Security forces were sent in to confront the looters, reportedly alongside armed civilians with links to the government. Many social media postings reproduced videos and audios of repeated gunfire, while others reported that the Children’s and Maternity Hospital in the area had to be evacuated after teargas entered the building. Local residents set up a series of small, burning barricades to try to stop security forces and the armed civilians from passing through, the Caracas Chronicles reported.
On April 21, the Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating the death of 11 people, including a 17-year-old boy, and injuries to six others in El Valle on April 20-21. Some victims were electrocuted, and others were killed by a firearm. The office was also investigating the death of another man who died in “a similar incident” in Petare, another poor area in Caracas.
On April 18, a criminal court in Caracas ordered the pretrial detention of the twins Francisco José Sánchez Ramírez and Francisco Alejandro Sánchez Ramírez, 22-year-old university students and opposition activists. The twins had been arrested five days earlier and accused of participating in an attack, during an anti-government protest on April 8, on a building that belongs to the judiciary.
On the day of their arrest, the interior and justice minister tweeted that security forces had delivered a “hard blow to the Venezuelan right’s terrorism” and that the twins had been “organizing terrorist acts against the country’s peace.” The minister said they had “confessed” their participation in “violence” and the government had “obtained valuable elements of proof that implicate right-wing leaders in terrorist acts.”
On April 16, President Nicolás Maduro aired a video supposedly of one of the twins, with his face blurred—and the voices of those questioning him altered—confessing that an opposition politician had paid him to recruit people and participate in violent acts.
But José Sánchez, the twins’ father and a lawyer, said the twins told the judge at the hearing that, after being detained as they were leaving the home of one’s girlfriend, they were driven to the offices of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN), where they were physically abused and threatened with death so they would film the video. When the father visited SEBIN offices that day, he was told they were not there. He was only able to see them 72 hours later, he said.
A prosecutor at the hearing said the video could not be used as evidence against the twins, the father reported, and that the allegations of torture would be investigated.
At a public appearance at the National Assembly on April 18, the father broke down when he reported what the twins had said: “They bent us, but they did not break us. Dad, tell all our friends that today’s tears will be tomorrow’s smiles.”
Thousands Protest Human Rights Crisis in Venezuela
The opposition in Venezuela organized what they called the “mother of all marches” today, as thousands poured into the streets to demand that the government hold elections, release political prisoners, reestablish judicial independence and the powers of the National Assembly, and allow sufficient humanitarian aid into the country.
The turnout was massive. But you’d never be able to tell from the information published by Venezuelan official sources – including the vice-president, Telesur, and VTV – that have been reporting exclusively on pro-government rallies in which large numbers of people participated, including some who sing and dance “in defense of peace.”
There aren’t many reasons to sing and dance in Venezuela today. Leave aside, for the moment, the political, economic, human rights, and humanitarian crisis that pushed thousands into the streets in protest. Today, security forces used force and deployed teargas against demonstrators, and dozens of people have been detained. Journalists covering the protests reported suffering harassment at the hands of security forces and pro-government supporters, and a TV cable channel that reported on the protests was taken off the air. At least one person was killed – a 17-year-old boy who was reportedly not participating in the demonstrations died after being shot in the head.
This was totally foreseeable. Today’s protests unfolded amid explosive tensions, in a country where security forces have brutally repressed anti-government demonstrations, sometimes in collaboration with armed pro-government groups. Before today’s demonstration, President Nicolás Maduro – invoking his “defending peace” slogan – accused the opposition of engaging in “violence, conspiracy, [a] coup d’etat, and interventionism.” He announced he would multiply the number of pro-government militias and arm them, while organizing parallel pro-government demonstrations to counter the opposition’s one.
In advance of today’s protests, the region’s eyes were on Venezuela. What is happening today should only be further evidence that there is an urgent need for strong international pressure to push for the restoration of human rights and democracy in Venezuela – and that the potential cost and risk of not exercising such pressure is rapidly increasing.
Live feed of April 19 protests
Watch images of today’s anti-government protests here:
The Venezuelan Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal support to detainees, reported today that 470 people have been detained during anti-government protests in Venezuela between April 4-14, including 165 who were released before being brought before a judge. Security forces used excessive force and teargas indiscriminately to disperse demonstrations, leading to serious injuries, the report says. At least five people were killed with firearms during the demonstrations, some of them by pro-government armed groups, the report says. Lawyers collaborating with the organization report that some detainees were beaten and tortured, while others were prosecuted without evidence implicating them in any crime, including sometimes by military courts.
Report: Venezuela's Humanitarian Crisis is Spilling into Brazil
Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is spilling across its borders, Human Rights Watch said today. Latin American governments need to apply strong pressure on the Maduro administration to address severe shortages of medicine and food in Venezuela that are causing Venezuelans to leave the country.
Latin America is watching
On April 17, in advance of anti-government protests scheduled to take place in Venezuela on April 19, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, and Peru called on the Maduro administration to ensure Venezuelans can exercise their right to demonstrate peacefully, and set a date for elections “to solve the grave crisis that Venezuela is facing, and worries the region.”
Venezuela’s crumbling façade of democracy
On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court effectively shut down Congress, the only key government institution that remained independent of executive control, making the incredible announcement that it would assume all legislative powers itself or choose some other institution to delegate them to. This ruling is the end of Maduro administration’s façade of democracy, José Miguel Vivanco writes in Univisión.
For Leopoldo López, 1,000 days as Maduro’s Hostage
Venezuela: Government Assails Critics as Crisis Deepens
The Venezuelan government has targeted critics of its ineffective efforts to alleviate severe shortages of essential medicines and food while the crisis persists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Regional governments should press the administration of President Nicolás Maduro to adopt immediate measures to better address the profound humanitarian crisis, including by exploring avenues for increased international assistance.
The Organization of American States (OAS) should press authorities from Venezuela’s Maduro administration to release and drop criminal charges against anyone who has been arbitrarily detained and charged, Human Rights Watch said today. The OAS should also press Venezuela so its authorities investigate allegations that several detainees have been beaten and tortured in custody, and make the results of the investigations public.
Venezuela: Police Raids Hit Poor Areas
Police and military raids in low-income and immigrant communities in Venezuela have led to widespread allegations of abuse, the Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Program (PROVEA) and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report released today. The allegations included extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and the arbitrary deportation of Colombian nationals.
Venezuela: Unarmed Protestors Beaten, Shot
Venezuelan security forces have used unlawful force in response to antigovernment demonstrations, severely beating unarmed protesters and shooting them at point blank range, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Security forces also subjected detainees to severe physical and psychological abuse, including in some cases torture, and justice officials failed to safeguard detainees’ due process rights.