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Venezuela: Rights Lawyer Faces Judicial Persecution

Criminal Investigation Launched to Intimidate Critic of Government’s Rights Record

The Venezuelan government should immediately halt criminal proceedings opened against one of Latin America’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Human Rights Watch said today.

Carlos Ayala Corao, a distinguished Venezuelan jurist and human rights expert, was summoned to appear this morning before a Caracas public prosecutor. The prosecutor was to notify Ayala of the opening of a criminal investigation against him, apparently for alleged involvement in the failed April 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Ayala, who is currently president of the nongovernmental Andean Commission of Jurists, is a former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Ayala appeared before the prosecutor who told him that his case had been postponed, and ordered him to present himself next week. He was given no explanation for the delay nor informed about the grounds of the investigation.

“This is a clear-cut case of political persecution, targeting someone who has been an effective critic of the Chávez government’s human rights record,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This outrageous accusation would be rejected out of hand in any independent court of law.”

Human Rights Watch urges Venezuelan Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez to halt immediately the judicial persecution of the distinguished human rights lawyer.

Carlos Ayala has been a prominent litigant in cases of human rights violations in Venezuela before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, often accompanying representatives of Venezuelan non-governmental human rights groups. On March 3 he participated in a special session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights devoted to an examination of human rights in Venezuela. After the meeting, the commission issued a statement expressing concern at the situation of risk and stigmatization affecting human rights defenders in Venezuela.

During the aborted coup attempt, Ayala intervened to protect the rights of a pro-Chávez congressman who had been detained illegally and was being held incommunicado by the security services. The congressman, Tarek William Saab, subsequently thanked Ayala on television for his timely action. A special committee of the National Assembly that investigated the events of April 2002 also noted that Ayala waited for five hours outside police headquarters while he was seeking Tarek William Saab’s release.

Over the past year, the pro-Chávez majority in the Venezuelan legislature has severely weakened judicial independence in Venezuela. In December, the National Assembly named 12 new justices to the Supreme Court after a law passed the previous May enlarged the court from 20 to 32 members. The pro-Chávez coalition justifies the enlargement of the Supreme Court as a response to pro-opposition rulings, such as a highly questionable decision that absolved four military officers charged with participating in the 2002 coup.

Last month, following the new judicial appointments, the court’s Constitutional Chamber annulled the acquittals—a decision apparently without precedent in recent Venezuelan legal history.

Numerous recent newspaper articles indicate that the attorney general is currently considering criminal proceedings against more than 200 people for politically motivated offenses, including involvement in the coup attempt. Defense lawyers expect the number to rise significantly in the coming months.

“This case signals that the Venezuelan authorities have now decided to resort to criminal prosecutions as a tool to harass government critics,” said Vivanco.

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