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(Washington, DC) – The government of Venezuela should not limit citizens’ rights to freely express their views and assemble peacefully in response to the disputed presidential election, Human Rights Watch said today. It should respect freedom of the press and all violent incidents should be subject to prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations, Human Rights Watch said.

Nicolás Maduro, who was declared the winner by the National Electoral Council by a narrow margin, said he would not allow the opposition to hold a rally, initially scheduled for April 17, 2013, and has said media outlets have a choice between supporting the government and supporting “fascism.”

“Venezuelans are entitled to peacefully challenge the election results, by marching in the streets or by expressing their views in the media,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Maduro shouldn’t threaten to use an ‘iron fist’ to restrict and intimidate those who try to voice their opinions.”

The special election was held on April 14, 2013, following the death of President Hugo Chávez. According to the National Electoral Council (CNE), acting President Maduro, the candidate from Chávez’s political party, defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski by a 1.6 percent margin.

Capriles challenged the results and asked the electoral authorities to conduct a full recount, a request echoed by the secretary general of the Organization of American States and initially supported by Maduro. However, the National Electoral Council summarily rejected the request and proclaimed Maduro president on April 15.

Capriles called on Venezuelans to demonstrate peacefully against the ruling and initially encouraged them to participate in an opposition rally in Caracas on April 17.

In a public address on April 16, Maduro said he would not allow the demonstration to take place, and vowed to treat “fascism” and “intolerance” with an “iron fist.” He also called on the Venezuelan media to decide whether they are “with the nation, peace, the people, or if they will be again with fascism... and violence.” Throughout the day, Maduro forced TV stations to air two mandatory broadcasts that showed him opening new hospitals, limiting their capacity to cover ongoing political developments.

Following Maduro’s speech, Capriles suspended the rally planned for April 17 and asked his followers to instead participate in “cacerolazos” (pot-banging protests) every night until April 19, when Maduro is due to be installed as president.

Venezuela’s attorney general reported on April 16 that seven individuals have been killed and 61 others have been injured in violent incidents since the elections. The minister of the interior and justice reported that the incidents included attacks on government offices and the offices of Chávez’s political party.

Maduro said Capriles is responsible for all violence that occurs in the country, and the minister of justice and interior accused Capriles of “instigating disobedience of the laws and hatred” by refusing to recognize the electoral results. The foreign minister accused Capriles of being responsible for acts of violence, and called on the competent authorities to investigate him for the crimes. Meanwhile, the attorney general said Capriles’ actions could constitute “instigation of hatred” and “civil rebellion.”

“The government should conduct independent, credible investigations into all acts of violence to determine who is responsible, rather than using criminal investigations as a political tool,” Vivanco said. 

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