(New York) – Venezuela has granted powers to the military to use force to control peaceful demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 23, 2015, the Defense Ministry issued a resolution authorizing the Armed Forces to maintain “public order” and “social peace” during “public meetings and demonstrations.”
Meanwhile, a year after a violent crackdown on nonviolent demonstrators and bystanders, there has been little accountability for the scores of abuses – including killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture – committed by security forces. The opposition leader Leopoldo López and more than two dozen others arrested in the context of the protests that began on February 12, 2014, and continued at least through April, remain in detention.
“Deploying the military to control political protests is a very bad idea, especially in a country where security forces already have a record of getting away with egregious abuses against nonviolent demonstrators,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans have good reasons to fear that involving the military, trained for warfare and not policing, will only make matters worse.”
The administration of President Nicolás Maduro should revoke the new powers granted to the military and immediately and unconditionally free López and others arbitrarily arrested during the 2014 protests, Human Rights Watch said.
While some protesters engaged in violence at some of the 2014 protests, including by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, Human Rights Watch’s research shows that the security forces repeatedly used unlawful force against unarmed people who were not engaged in violence. Some of the worst abuses documented were against people who were not participating in demonstrations, or were already detained and fully under security forces’ control.
Based on the government’s own accounting, there has been little accountability for these violations. As of November, prosecutors had received 242 complaints of alleged human rights violations during the demonstrations, including two cases of torture, though Human Rights Watch documented more. The Attorney General’s Office reported that prosecutors had concluded 125 investigations, bringing charges against 15 members of public security forces.
When addressing the United Nations Committee Against Torture in November, a representative of the Attorney General’s Office said that two police officials had been convicted for “events that occurred” during the protests, but provided no information regarding the nature of their crimes or the convictions.
After the protests began, the government immediately blamed the political opposition for inciting violence, and on February 12 a judge acted on a prosecutor’s request and ordered López arrested. He has been detained arbitrarily in a military prison since he turned himself in on February 18, and remains on trial. In criminal procedures that violated due process guarantees, two opposition mayors were convicted and given prison sentences of 10 and 12 months for failing to clear streets in their municipalities where demonstrators were protesting.
In October, the UN high commissioner for human rights urged Venezuela to release arbitrarily detained protesters and politicians. The UN Committee Against Torture said in November that Venezuela should immediately release López, one of the mayors, and “everyone who has been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to express themselves and protest peacefully.”
In December, the United States imposed targeted sanctions on Venezuelan military and civilian officials allegedly responsible for human rights violations during the protests. The sanctions include refusing or cancelling visas for certain officials and freezing their personal assets in the US.
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) rejected the sanctions, contending that they violate the “principle of non-intervention” in Venezuela. Similarly, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) criticized the sanctions and urged the international community to refrain from “intervening, directly or indirectly, in internal affairs” of other states. Neither UNASUR nor CELAC has condemned the security forces’ systematic abuses of protesters, nor the criminal prosecution of Maduro’s political opponents.
In January 2015, the government of Colombia broke this collective silence by calling for releasing López, after Venezuela refused to allow former President Andrés Pastrana of Colombia and former President Sebastián Piñera of Chile to visit López in prison. Maduro accused the two former presidents, and former President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, who also traveled to Caracas, of supporting “a coup against the government” and a “terrorist group of the extreme right,” while the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Ministry lamented that the Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry supported “positions that run counter Venezuelan democracy” and constituted a “dangerous setback” in the two countries’ bilateral relations.
“Latin American governments need to speak up individually and collectively about the crackdown on protesters in Venezuela, and to call on the Maduro administration to hold security forces accountable for the abuses and release opponents who have been arbitrarily jailed,” Vivanco said.
Military Involvement in Crowd Control Operations
The new Defense Ministry resolution allows the Bolivarian Armed Forces to “cooperate with civilian authorities in controlling and maintaining citizen security and public order” and grants them broad powers to “maintain and ensure stability,” “avoid disorder,” and “reject all aggression it faces immediately and with necessary means.” The resolution authorizes the military to use firearms to control “public meetings and peaceful demonstrations,” though it stipulates they may only be used when “necessary” and “proportional.”
The Venezuelan Constitution, however, provides that “citizen security forces” should be “civilian,” and that “the use of firearms and toxic substances is prohibited to control peaceful demonstrations.” It also requires that a law – and not a ministerial resolution – regulates the participation of police and security forces in public security operations.
Under international standards, the use of military forces in public security operations should be limited. The Inter-American Court has held that states should “restrict to the maximum extent the use of armed forces to control domestic disturbances.” The UN Committee Against Torture has expressed concern regarding the participation of members of the Venezuelan military in crowd control operations during the 2014 protests. It said that Venezuela should “ensure that the bodies in charge of maintaining citizen security are civilian” and “modify the legislation that authorizes the involvement of the military in maintaining public order, except for extraordinary situations, such as states of emergency, when the capacity of the police has been surpassed.”
On February 10, 2015, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the resolution and “urged the government of Venezuela not to use the Armed Forces to control pacific demonstrations.”
Impunity for Security Force Abuses During 2014 Protests
In the report “Punished for Protesting,” Human Rights Watch documented 45 cases involving more than 150 victims of the unlawful use of force by members of several branches of the Venezuelan security forces between February and April 2014 – including the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police, and state police forces.
Security forces systematically attacked nonviolent protesters and bystanders in many locations across three states and the capital, including in controlled environments such as military bases and other state institutions. The abuses included indiscriminately firing live ammunition, rubber bullets, and teargas into crowds and, in some cases, deliberately firing pellets at point blank range at unarmed individuals, including, in some cases, individuals already in custody.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, security forces detained 3,351 people during the demonstrations. In many of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, detainees were held incommunicado for 48 hours or more before being presented to a judge. Many detainees suffered brutal beatings, electric shocks or burns, and other abusive treatment at the hands of the security forces that in some cases constituted torture. Prosecutors and judges routinely turned a blind eye to evidence that security forces abused detainees in detention, including obvious signs of physical abuse, Human Rights Watch found.
On February 10, 2015, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz stated that 27 people, including two students, remained in detention in connection with the protests.
As of November 2014, a representative from the Attorney General’s Office said prosecutors had received 242 complaints of alleged human rights violations during the demonstrations, which included only two cases of torture. The Attorney General’s Office reported that prosecutors had concluded 125 investigations, bringing charges against 15 members of public security forces.
In early November, the representative from the Attorney General’s Office told the UN Committee Against Torture that two police officials had been convicted for “events that occurred in the state of Anzoátegui” during the protests. However, she did not provide additional information regarding the nature of their crimes or the convictions. In February 2015, Ortega Díaz stated that 14 members of security forces were in detention in connection with the protests.
On November 19, 2014, after the Attorney General’s Office presented its statistics at the UN, Human Rights Watch requested detailed information from the office regarding the status of investigations into human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces, as well as acts of violence allegedly committed by protesters. The government has not responded.
No government agents have been convicted specifically for the serious violations Human Rights Watch documented, according to the information that has been made available by the government.
Similarly, no security force member has been charged in the cases documented by the Human Rights Center of the Catholic University Andrés Bello (UCAB), a lawyer for the center told Human Rights Watch. The center represented approximately 230 people in their first hearings before the courts. Of these, 193 people reported they had suffered human rights abuses. All had been arbitrarily detained and suffered due process violations, while more than 130 also suffered physical or psychological abuse, UCAB reported.
Examples of Impunity for 2014 Protester Abuses
Moisés Guánchez, 19
Members of the National Guard assaulted Moisés Guánchez, 19, in a parking lot in El Carrizal as he left his restaurant job on March 5, including shooting him point blank with rubber bullets in his groin. He required three blood transfusions and operations on his arm, leg, and one of his testicles.
Two days later, a prosecutor charged Guánchez with public incitement to commit crimes and attacks undermining security on public roads, but a judge ruled in the same hearing, which was held in Guánchez’s hospital room, that there was no evidence that Guánchez had committed a crime and ordered his release. The judge asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the abuses Guánchez suffered.
Since then, National Guard members have repeatedly intimidated Guánchez, including by appearing at his job and university, asking about his whereabouts, and photographing his car. His attempts to advance the case with the Attorney General’s office have been unsuccessful. Despite evidence implicating at least two officials, prosecutors have not charged the officials, a lawyer working on the case told Human Rights Watch.
Cristian Holdack, 34
Security forces arbitrarily detained Cristian Holdack, 34, along with five others on February 12, 2014, in Caracas, after a peaceful protest ended in dozens of violent incidents. Security forces subjected the six men to severe physical abuse during their arrest and at police headquarters, where they were held incommunicado for 48 hours. On February 14, they were brought before a judge and charged with several crimes based on evidence presented by the prosecution that included clothes that security officials had stained with gasoline, and photographs of unidentifiable individuals engaged in confrontations with security forces placed alongside the men’s mug shots. The following day, the judge ordered them held in pretrial detention. Months later, the judge in charge of the case ruled that there was no evidence to continue the trial against two of the accused, and later ordered the conditional release of three others.
However, Holdack remains in pretrial detention, despite a September report by the Ombudsman’s Office stating that Holdack suffers post-traumatic stress and depression. The Ombudsman’s Office asked the judge to authorize Holdack’s conditional release to receive adequate treatment, but Holdack remains in detention.
At the initial hearing before the judge, Holdack’s defense team had asked prosecutors to investigate the abuses he and the others had suffered. Holdack later filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, requesting an investigation. As of February 2015, no one had been charged in relation to the abuses Holdack suffered, a member of his defense team said.
Gengis Pinto, 36
During an anti-government rally in San Antonio de los Altos on February 19, 2014, national guardsman fired pellets at Gengis Pinto’s face, at point blank range, despite the fact that he had been detained and was offering no resistance. Pinto, 36, raised his arm to block the shot, which struck his hand, badly mangling several of his fingers, and embedded several pellets in his forearm. Guardsmen beat, threatened, and questioned him and took Pinto to an emergency clinic only six hours later. Though the doctor told guardsmen that Pinto needed immediate specialty care that the clinic could not provide, it was another 10 hours before they took him to a private clinic, where he underwent surgery. Guardsmen told Pinto to say that he had run into a post and been hit in the face with a bottle by a fellow demonstrator.
At an initial hearing before a judge in February 2014, in which he was charged with several crimes, Pinto’s defense team asked prosecutors to investigate the abuses that he and the others had suffered. Pinto told Human Rights Watch that in January 2015, a prosecutor contacted him and asked him to bring two witnesses to her office. The two witnesses provided their testimony and the prosecutor also interviewed Pinto and told him that she would call him back. As of early February, Pinto had not heard back from the prosecutor.
Marvinia Jiménez, 36
On February 24, 2014, a female member of the National Guard attacked Marvinia Jiménez, a 36-year-old seamstress, after she filmed officials with her cell phone as they shot teargas canisters at protesters. Several witnesses filmed and photographed her beating. Guardsmen arrested her and took her for medical care only hours later. Her face and head were seriously bruised in several places, and she had to wear an orthopedic neck brace while recovering. She spent the night sleeping on the floor of a police station. The following morning, a man who identified himself as a representative of the Ombudsman’s Office asked her to sign a document stating she was in good health, according to Jiménez. She refused, telling him she had a severe headache. “That is not my problem because I am here to certify that you do not have anything,” she said the man told her.
In March, Jiménez’s lawyers filed a criminal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office requesting an investigation into the abuses, Jiménez told Human Rights Watch. A judge issued an arrest warrant for the guardswoman responsible for the abuses Jiménez suffered. But as of January 2015 she had not been detained, a lawyer who had access to the judicial file told Human Rights Watch.
Arbitrary Arrests of Opposition Leaders
After the initial confrontations between protesters and security forces on February 12, 2014, the government accused López of being the “intellectual author” of the protest-related violence, including attacks against public offices and vehicles. The Attorney General’s Office promptly sought his arrest for several alleged crimes. López has been held in a military prison since he turned himself in on February 18. During his trial, which began in July, the presiding judge refused to hear the vast majority of the evidence presented by his defense team, and prosecutors have failed to present credible evidence to substantiate their accusations. The trial against López is still ongoing.
In April, the Supreme Court summarily tried and sentenced two opposition mayors to 10 and 12 months in prison. The court accused the mayors of contempt for not complying with a Supreme Court injunction to ensure that people could move around freely in their municipalities during the protests. The Supreme Court’s rulings are not subject to appeal, which violates the due process right to appeal a criminal conviction. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, when analyzing one of the cases, stated that the Supreme Court had violated the defendant’s right to an adequate defense, and his right to be tried by a competent court. One of the mayors was released in February after completing his sentence.
In December, the Attorney General’s Office charged a leading opposition politician, María Corina Machado, with conspiracy for her alleged involvement in a plot to kill Maduro. The president called Machado an “assassin,” while the pro-government president of the National Assembly accused her of erasing the emails that appear to be the only evidence that prosecutors said they had against her.
In September, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that López and one of two convicted mayors had been arbitrarily detained. In October, the UN high commissioner for human rights urged Venezuela to release arbitrarily detained protesters and politicians. In November, the UN Committee Against Torture called on Venezuela to immediately release López, one of the mayors, and “everyone who has been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to express themselves and protest peacefully.”
Lack of Judicial Independence
Former President Hugo Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004. Since then, the judiciary has largely ceased to function as an independent branch of government. Members of the Supreme Court have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers, publicly pledged their commitment to advancing the government’s political agenda, and repeatedly ruled in favor of the government, validating the government’s disregard for human rights.
Since then, the government and its supporters have taken dramatic steps to maintain their political control over the judiciary. In December 2014, the pro-government majority of the National Assembly appointed 12 new members to the Supreme Court through a simple majority vote, after failing to obtain a two-thirds majority, for which a consensus with the opposition would have been necessary. A court-packing law adopted in 2004 provides that a simple majority vote is valid only if a two-thirds majority vote is not obtained after voting three times.