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Defending Human Rights
The improvement in the political climate for human rights advocacy noted in 1997 was maintained during the year, as the National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH), composed of key government ministers and the governor of Caracas, continued to meet with nongovernmental organizations to discuss a national agenda of human rights reforms and to participate in joint activities. The formation of a human rights commission within the armed forces brought the Venezuelan military into these discussions. Despite the holding of events and the release of publications aimed at promoting human rights, progress in implementing reforms was slow. The CNDH was not empowered to investigate human rights violations, but it did receive complaints and channel them to the respective authorities for investigation and action. The formation of a National Police Committee in 1997 led to the introduction of police human rights training programs, and police chiefs showed greater willingness to admit that abuses had taken place. In March, a human rights course for prison directors organized by the main non-governmental prison reform group was inaugurated with support from the embassy of Switzerland and the Basque government.

By the end of July, eight human rights defenders had been subjected to death threats and harassment for their work in favor of alleged victims of police abuse or advocating prison reform. Among those who received threats were Liliana Ortega, executive director of the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the Events of February-March 1989 (Comité de Familiares de los Sucesos de Febrero-Marzo de 1989, COFAVIC) , a group that has played a prominent role advocating prisoners’ rights, and Noel Azócar, president of the Human Rights Foundation of the State of Anzoátegui (Fundación de los Derechos Humanos del Estado Anzoátegui), which has denounced summary executions by Anzoátegui state police officials. Death threats made against volunteers for the Red de Apoyo appeared to be connected directly to their work on behalf of victims of police brutality. On June 5, Nilson Enrique Benítez Videz, a taxi driver, and José Pirela, a blacksmith, were killed in Maracaíbo, Zulia state, allegedly by members of the Technical Branch of the Judicial Police (Cuerpo Técnico de la Policia Judicial, CPTJ). Relatives of the victims, who strongly disputed the police version of the killings, enlisted the support of the Red de Apoyo. Thereafter, several relatives and two Red de Apoyo volunteer workers, Sergio Salvador and Maridex Valera, began to receive anonymous telephone calls. When they picked up the telephone theycould hear only the sounds of office equipment. Sergio Salvador, accompanying relatives, was shadowed by vehicles with darkened windows, while he tried to interview witnesses close to the scene of the shootings. On July 27, he was approached in the street by two men, who told him that if he persisted in seeking an exhumation of the bodies of Benítez and Pirela, “he would be the next to be exhumed.”

In June, PROVEA reported that human rights defenders in the state of Aragua had been publicly accused by state government officials of defending criminals and obstructing law enforcement. The officials allegedly encouraged individuals claiming to represent neighborhood groups to physically attack the activists. In PROVEA’s 1997 annual report Aragua had been signaled as the state with the highest number of extrajudicial killings in Venezuela, with more than thirty alleged cases. During the first seven months of 1998, the organization recorded only seven cases.

On June 5, three men claiming to be police officers stopped Carlos Nieto Palma, a human rights attorney and president of A Window to Freedom (Una Ventana a la Libertad), a prison reform group, as he arrived at his office in central Caracas and ordered him to accompany them. They took him by car to a house where they interrogated him about his activities, intimating that they suspected him of instigating prison riots. The men warned him to “take care what he was getting into since they were watching him and to leave the prisoners in our jails alone, so that they can kill one another.”













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