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Venezuela: Investigate Pre-Referendum Violence

The Venezuelan authorities should carry out prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all acts of violence committed against demonstrators both supporting and opposing the constitutional reforms proposed by the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have participated in street demonstrations ahead of a national referendum to be held on December 2. Campaigning will continue for the rest of the week, and both supporters and opponents of the reforms are planning massive public events.

Despite simmering political tensions, most of the activities have been peaceful. However, there have also been incidents ending in violence, with conflicting accounts about who was responsible. There has also been one credible allegation of the kidnapping and torture of two students because of their involvement in antigovernment protests.

“The Venezuelan government has a duty to investigate this violence against demonstrators and ensure that these investigations are thorough and impartial,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Whoever is responsible for these crimes must be held accountable.”

Two students, Werner Geisse and Rafael Parra, were allegedly tortured on November 23 after participating in a protest against the reforms. They told members of the press that they were abducted from a shopping mall in Lara state by two armed men wearing black hoods, forced into a van without license plates, and driven around for two hours before being released.

The students allege that, during their abduction, they were interrogated regarding the names of student protest leaders, and were beaten and burned with cigarettes when they did not provide answers. TV footage of an interview with the students on Saturday shows Parra still bleeding from a nose injury and both students with blisters on their forearms.

In another incident, on November 26, a 19-year-old construction worker, José Ángel Yépez, was shot dead and several others were injured during protests against the constitutional reforms in Carobobo state. Government officials have stated that Yépez was peacefully on his way to work when opposition protesters opened fire.

But according to the Venezuelan newspaper, Últimas Noticias, a group of government supporters threw rocks at opposition demonstrators and burned a nearby car, leading to an exchange of gunfire in which Yépez, one of the government supporters, died. Police immediately arrested the president of a local neighborhood association for the murder, and at least 15 opposition protesters were detained in connection with the violence.

On November 7, masked gunmen on motorcycles entered the Central University of Venezuela campus and shot at a group of students returning from a protest against the reforms. At least eight students were injured, two with gunshot wounds, according to government officials. University officials accused the government of orchestrating the groups who opened fire, while government ministers faulted the returning protesters, university authorities, and the political opposition for the violence.

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