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Venezuela: Legal Means Used to Address Political Crisis

Referendum Process Strengthens Rule of Law, But Judiciary Still Faces Threats

By seeking to resolve its political crisis through a national referendum, Venezuela has taken an important step toward strengthening the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said today.

Venezuelans, divided over the policies of President Hugo Chávez, have used the mechanism established by the country’s constitution to determine the fate of his presidency. According to election authorities and international observers, a significant majority of Venezuelans has voted to keep him in office.

“Venezuela’s democracy has passed a historic test,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “President Chávez has won a decisive victory, and the country has proven that it is able to address its political crises through legal means.”

While the referendum process appears to have been largely peaceful, Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern about an incident yesterday afternoon, when armed men, apparently Chávez supporters, fired on opposition protesters in the Altamira district of Caracas, killing a woman in her sixties and injuring eight others. Human Rights Watch urged the government to carry out an immediate and thorough investigation of the shootings and prosecute those responsible for them.

“It’s crucial now that Venezuela continue to strengthen its rule of law,” said Vivanco. “In addition to prosecuting acts of political violence, President Chávez should address the serious threats to judicial independence that his own government has created.”

Human Rights Watch specifically urged President Chávez to suspend implementation of a court-packing law that he signed in May. The law, which expands the Supreme Court from 20 to 32, empowers Chávez’s governing coalition to use its slim majority in the legislature to obtain an overwhelming majority of seats on the country’s highest court. The law also gives the governing coalition the power to nullify existing judges’ appointments to the bench.

A political takeover of the Supreme Court will compound the damage already done to judicial independence by policies pursued by the Court itself. The Supreme Court, which has administrative control over the judiciary, has suspended a program that would reduce the large number of judges who do not have security of tenure. The Court has summarily fired judges after they decided politically controversial cases.

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