Washington, D.C., April 9, 2004
President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Palacio de Miraflores
Caracas – VENEZUELA
Fax: 58212 806 3221
Dear President Chávez:
On March 14, during your ‘Alo Presidente’ address from the Burros Island, you denied that government security forces committed human rights violations during the protests and insisted that the rights of all detainees in Venezuela are respected. Indeed, you challenged those who had complained about human rights abuse to present you with the names of victims, and you declared your uncompromising commitment to promoting human rights and bringing human rights abusers to justice. In the spirit of that commitment, we respectfully urge you to ensure that investigations into these alleged abuses are impartial and thorough, and that the parties responsible for human rights abuses are prosecuted.
Human Rights Watch does not take sides in the current political conflict in Venezuela. Our commitment is solely to the protection of fundamental human rights enshrined in international treaties such as the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights, which categorically prohibit torture under any circumstances. As a party to both of these treaties, Venezuela has an obligation not only to prevent violations, but also to conduct thorough and impartial investigations, and to prosecute those found responsible for committing them.
Over the past several weeks, Human Rights Watch has collected testimony regarding alleged ill-treatment and torture that took place from February 27 until March 5. The cases described below are based on Human Rights Watch’s interviews with young people who were detained during the protests and, in one case, with a detainee’s parents. Venezuelan nongovernmental human rights groups have also documented similar abuses, as have press accounts based on interviews with former detainees. Altogether, the available information suggests a disturbing pattern of conduct that clearly violates international law enforcement standards.
During the week in question, Venezuela experienced the most serious unrest since the attempted coup against your government on April 11, 2002. An opposition march on February 27 turned violent as demonstrators clashed with units of the National Guard who were preventing the protesters from gaining access to the Plaza Morelos, in central Caracas. On that day, and in the days that followed, security forces repeatedly used tear gas and plastic bullets to disband demonstrations.
Civilians on the government as well as the opposition side are alleged to have used firearms, as are members of the Directorate of Services of Intelligence and Prevention (DISIP), dressed in civilian clothes. Thirteen people died between February 27 and March 16 from bullet wounds after being shot in circumstances that have still to be clarified, and 119 people were wounded, forty-nine from gunshots.
Between 300 and 400 people were reportedly detained during the protests. Most of the Caracas detainees were released during the weeks that followed, except for eight who reportedly remain in detention at the time of this writing. Most of those charged face charges such as illegal assembly, obstruction of roads, resisting arrest, and illegal possession of explosive material.
Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were beaten during and after their arrests with nightsticks, with the flat side of sabres, and with helmets, gunstocks, and other articles. These beatings often continued as they were being transported in National Guard vehicles. Two detainees stated that their captors hurled tear gas bombs into a closed vehicle in which they had just been seated, causing extreme distress, near suffocation, and panic, while three described how the powder from tear gas canisters was sprinkled on their faces and eyes, causing burns and skin irritation. Three stated that they were shocked with electric batons while in custody and defenseless.
The repeated reports of tear gas powder being sprinkled on the faces and bodies of individuals in custody, as well as the release of tear gas and pepper spray in vehicles crammed with prisoners, are particularly disturbing. Gas used in confined spaces is more concentrated and lasting in its effects than when used in the open. It could cause individuals who are incapacitated or unable to move to suffocate. It is also potentially fatal to those with lung or heart ailments. Direct contact with tear gas powder can cause blistering skin burns, eye injury, and lasting respiratory effects. There should be a full investigation into the alleged abuse of chemical riot control agents and, if the reports are confirmed, strict orders should be issued to prevent a recurrence of this practice in the future.
Carlos Eduardo Izcaray Pinto, solo cellist of the Venezuela Symphony orchestra, was arrested during the night of March 2 near Altamira Plaza, where he had been watching anti-government protests close to his home. Izcaray told Human Rights Watch that the National Guard had come under a barrage of stones and fireworks and had charged the demonstrators, who ran in all directions. He decided to walk home but was intercepted by a National Guardsman riding a motorbike, who stopped him for questioning. Ignoring his protests that he was only a bystander, the guardsman beat him repeatedly around the head, insulted him, and forced him onto the back of the motorbike. He was later put into a truck in which there were five or six other detainees. He told Human Rights Watch:
- The guardsmen in the truck continued to hit me on the neck and body with their nightsticks, helmets, and even traffic cones. One hit me on the elbow with a stick so hard that my arm and hand went numb. Another emptied a teargas bomb and smeared the contents on my hair and face, then set light to my hair, burning my neck. One guy put a pistol in my mouth and made me repeat a phrase after him, “I am going home to my husband.” I suppose it was meant to humiliate me.
After a while they moved us into a second truck. Inside, they made us inhale tear gas after closing the canvas sides of the truck and putting on their gas masks. They threw one of the big [teargas] bombs inside, closed all the doors and if any one pushed on the canvas sides to escape they got beaten. My lungs were burning and I really thought I was going to die. Eventually I managed to get out the side of the vehicle and they didn’t try to stop me.
We were taken to the 51st Detachment of the National Guard at El Paraíso in Western Caracas. They made us all kneel in a corner looking at the ground and they hit anyone who moved with their helmets or sticks. Then they gave me electric shocks on the neck and arms from some equipment I couldn’t see because it was above my head.
Izcaray told Human Rights Watch that there were three minors in the group with whom he was arrested, including a fifteen-year-old. “They were treated as badly as the rest of us. The guards made us stand up and sit down in quick order and the slowest would get teargas powder thrown in his eyes. Most of the time it was the kid they threw the powder at.”
According to Izcaray’s father, orchestral conductor Felipe Izcaray, “Carlos was released thanks to a kindly soul in the National Guard who allowed him to make a phone call, as he was on a list of people to be transferred to La Planta. The alert mobilized his family, friends and colleagues and he was eventually set free, but he was not allowed to see his lawyer during all the time he was detained.” Carlos Izcaray told Human Rights Watch that, before he was released, a National Guard officer warned him of reprisals if he publicly denounced his maltreatment. When Human Rights Watch spoke to him on March 19, he said that his hand was still numb and he was unable to hold the bow of his cello.
Although arrested by a different police force, the experience of eighteen-year-old high-school student Asdrúbal Joaquín Rojas Monteverde was similar. Rojas was arrested on March 1 in Maripérez, Caracas, by armed officers of the military police. He told Human Rights Watch that his mother had sent him to buy some cell-phone cards. He was on his way to buy them accompanied by two friends (one of them a minor), when they were stopped by the military police. Rojas told Human Rights Watch:
- The military police took us to the Plaza Venezuela, where they put us in a truck. They beat me with their helmets, especially on my left arm. They sprinkled powder from a tear gas can over my eyes. It stung like crazy. Then they threw a tear gas bomb into the truck. I took a deep breath and held my breath as long as I could, but then I was breathing pure gas. I was suffocating…the police did nothing to help us, but I beat against the canvas sides of the truck and managed to find an opening. I was able to breathe air again. After this, the officers made me appear in front of the television cameras in the Plaza Venezuela and say that I had received the money I was carrying from the Acción Democrática as payment for participating in the protests. They threatened to beat me more if I refused.
The truck then took us to the military police headquarters in Fuerte Tiuna, where they continued to mistreat me. They gave me electric shocks five times from a baton that they carry (one of them also used it when he arrested me). It made my muscles contract from the effect of the electricity, and then my whole body started trembling.
Rojas’ mother, Ivette Monteverde de Rojas, told Human Rights Watch that she saw bruises on his neck and his shoulder when she visited him on the following day.
Rojas was released conditionally on March 25 after being held for more than three weeks in the military police’s 35th regiment headquarters in San José de San Martín, Fuerte Tiuna. He was charged with illegal assembly, obstruction of the street, resisting authority, and possession of inflammable substances. He was required to sign in every fifteen days at the courts until his case was heard. Rojas told Human Rights Watch after his release that he had never participated in the protests, which he didn’t agree with.
The parents of Rodrigo Luis Alegrett Salazar, a twenty-one-year-old architecture student at the Universidad Santa María in Caracas, say that he gave them a similar account. Alegrett was released on March 31 from the detention facility at La Planta after all the charges against him— which included obstruction of the street, civil disobedience, and illegal possession of explosive substances—were dropped. According to members of his family, National Guardsmen arrested him during the night of February 29, near the Altamira Plaza, when he was about to catch the Metro to return home hours after participating in the demonstrations. Both his parents and his sister assert that he was beaten repeatedly with the flat side of a sabre, and doused with cold water while in National Guard custody.
Alegrett’s father, Luis Alegrett, told Human Rights Watch that, according to his son, the guardsmen beat the detainees when they were in the truck. Later in the barracks, they maltreated them physically and mentally, making them sing pro-Chavez slogans and hitting anyone who didn’t sing loudly enough. The father said that, according to his son, the guardsmen sprinkled them with powder, apparently from tear gas canisters, which irritates the skin. They didn’t let the detainees sleep or call anyone, he said. At one point, the guardsman sprayed his son and another boy with a high-pressure hose and shocked them afterwards with an electric baton.
The cases described above are consistent with reports we have received from other credible sources. The human rights NGO, Una Ventana a La Libertad, for example, reported visiting five of the detainees held with Alegrett in La Planta, on March 9. All five claimed to have been beaten while they were detained in a National Guard installation in El Paraíso. David Alejandro Amundaraín, for instance, suffered a burst eardrum allegedly as result of a beating administered by a guardsman.
Another source of information on the mistreatment of detainees was Dorindo Burgos Arias, a Spanish-born priest who was arrested by the National Guard in the demonstration on February 29 and released later that night. Burgos told Human Rights Watch that the detainees were jammed on top of one another in the truck that took them to the Guardia Nacional headquarters in El Paraíso (the 51st detachment) and that he had to shout for help because he could hardly breathe. “They shoved me into the truck like a sack of potatoes and with insults, blows and obscenities and repeating every moment, don’t raise your head, don’t look at us. They continued to insult and beat us and kept throwing more detainees on top of us. They threatened to throw a tear gas bomb in.”
Burgos reported that the guards stopped beating him when they learned he was a priest. Before releasing him, however, they made him sign a form stating that he had not been mistreated.
Félix Ernesto Farías Arias, a thirty-two-year-old psychologist and leader of Bandera Roja (a left-wing opposition party), told Human Rights Watch that he participated in anti-government demonstrations in the Candelaria district during the evening of March 2. After the Caracas municipal police (Policaracas) and DISIP police in plain clothes broke up the protests, Farías headed home but was stopped about 100 meters from his house by two men in civilian clothes wearing ski masks and black flak jackets, and armed with handguns. The men forced him into a van where two other men were sitting. Amid threats and insults, one man hit him on the neck to make him lower his head and forced what he took to be a ski mask on his head back to front, so that he could not see. As Farías told Human Rights Watch:
- When about fifteen minutes had passed, or so it seemed, they rolled up the sleeves of my jacket, gripped both my arms hard and after a few seconds I felt the first burn, which they did without asking me anything at all. I cried out and they gave me another slap and told me to be quiet. After that burn they said, “well, you s.o.b., maybe you’d like to tell us what the **** you were doing in the Candelaria.” I replied that I was just in the protest, and they burned me again saying: “this guy thinks we’re clowns.” A long time passed—I later found out it was an hour and a half—while they burned me, insulted me, and put what I thought were pistols to my head and testicles, saying repeatedly that they were going to kill me. After the second or third burn I could make out between the shouts and threats the click of a cigarette lighter and after a few seconds they pressed the hot object to my arm.
After interrogating him about members of his organization and threatening him, eventually Farías’ captors ordered him to close his eyes, removed the ski mask and threw him from the vehicle while it was moving at a slow speed. He fell, bruising and skinning his right shoulder. Photographs published in the newspaper El Universal on March 4 show burn marks on both of Farías’ arms that look like they could have been inflicted with a fork.
The human rights ombudsman, Dr. Germán Mundaraín, has confirmed reports of ill-treatment and torture. Dr. Mundaraín told Human Rights Watch that his staff has visited all the detainees held in Caracas, and most of those held in the rest of the country, to assess their physical and mental health and collect information regarding the circumstances of their arrest and their treatment while in detention. He said his staff had received credible first-hand accounts of ill treatment of detainees in police stations, military installations, and government vehicles. The ombudsman’s preliminary report, published on March 25, states that “the security forces were responsible for excesses in the use of force, possible arbitrary detentions, mistreatment and also, torture.” The report documents seven cases of torture and seventeen cases of alleged ill-treatment, in some cases listing the injuries noted in medical examinations.
We understand that the attorney general’s office is investigating the alleged mistreatment of detainees. The attorney general, Dr. Isaías Rodríguez, reports that his office is investigating nine cases. Dr. Gilberto Venere, the public ministry official conducting the investigations, told Human Rights Watch that they involve six of the La Planta detainees: Rodrigo Luis Alegrett Salazar, José Ramón Merlo Rojas, Heber Gustavo Prado, Angel Daviott, José Rafael Peralta Medina, and David Alejandro Amandaraín. Complaints filed by three adolescents that members of the National Guard tortured them after their arrest in Caracas on March 1 are also under investigation. Dr. Venere told Human Rights Watch that he had taken statements from the victims, ordered medical examinations, and is now trying to establish which officers participated in the arrest and custody of these detainees. He will question these officers once they are identified.
Human Rights Watch welcomes these steps. We urge you to ensure that the investigations are thorough and impartial, and that their findings are used to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations. We also urge you to ensure that any police or military personnel being prosecuted for these crimes be immediately suspended from service. In order to prevent future violations, we strongly recommend that you issue instructions to all the security forces that abusive treatment and torture will not be tolerated under any circumstances, and that officers who engage in these practices will be fired and face criminal prosecution. To ensure that your position on this issue is widely disseminated, we would encourage you to make these instructions public on your television program.
Thank you for you attention to this urgent matter.
José Miguel Vivanco
Cc: Dr. José Vicente Rangel, Vice-President of the Republic
Cc: Dr. Jesús Arnaldo Pérez, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Cc: Gen. Jorge García Carneiro, Minister of Defense
Cc: Gen. Lucas Rincón Romero, Minister of the Interior and Justice
Cc: Dr. Isaías Rodríguez, Attorney General of the Republic
Cc: Dr. Jesse Chacón, Minister of Communication and Information
Cc: Dr. Germán Mundaraín, Human Rights Ombudsman
More Information on Human Rights in Venezuela
Venezuela: Investigate Charges of Abuses Against Protestors
Press Release, March 5, 2004