Anti-government protesters shout during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela on March 3, 2014.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should condemn the grave human rights violations committed by the Venezuelan government against political opponents and protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. Venezuela should release people arbitrarily detained and bring to justice those responsible for abuses committed against protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 20, 2015, the UNASUR secretary general, Ernesto Samper, announced that the foreign affairs ministers of Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador would travel to Venezuela in the coming days to “open channels of dialogue and understanding” in the country. UNASUR and its member states – with the exception of Colombia and Chile – have failed to voice concern regarding the detention of political opponents and the widespread abuses committed against protesters and bystanders during demonstrations in Venezuela over the past year.

“If UNASUR wants to promote a genuine dialogue, it should first press the Venezuelan government to stop locking up the people it needs to be talking with,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The regional body should call for the immediate release of all the government opponents who have been arbitrarily detained, and justice for the widespread abuses that have been committed against protesters over the past year.”

On February 24, UNASUR “lamented” the death of Kluibert Ferney Roa, a 14-year-old student who, witnesses told the media, had been killed that day by a member of the Bolivarian National Police during a demonstration about the scarcity of food and medicine in San Cristóbal, in Táchira State. News accounts said that the officer had fired at Roa with rubber pellets (perdigones) at close range. During his TV show that same day, President Nicolás Maduro condemned the killing, which he said occurred when the police responded to violent protesters, and stated that “armed repression was prohibited in Venezuela” and that police officers responsible for the death have been detained. On February 25, the Attorney General’s Office stated that one police officer had been charged with intentional homicide, amongst other crimes.

On February 19, members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service detained Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Caracas, an opposition party member, who was later charged with “conspiracy” and “association to commit crimes” and is being held in a military prison. Over the past year, the government has pursued criminal charges against at least five other opposition politicians; three have been jailed, including two sentenced in trials that violated basic due process rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Leopoldo López, another opposition leader under criminal prosecution, was accused by the government of inciting protest-related violence, including attacks against public offices and vehicles, during a demonstration on February 12, 2014. He has been held in the Ramo Verde military prison near Caracas since he turned himself in on February 18.

After the Venezuelan newspaper Últimas Noticias published evidence that suggests uniformed officers together with armed men in civilian clothes were responsible for one of the deaths on February 12, the Attorney General's Office was forced to backtrack and dropped the charges of homicide initially included in López's arrest warrant. However, López is being prosecuted for various crimes. During his trial, which began in July and is ongoing, the presiding judge has refused to allow his defense team to submit the vast majority of its evidence, and prosecutors have failed to present credible evidence to substantiate their accusations.

On February 17, 2014, an arrest warrant was issued for Carlos Vecchio, a member of López’s political party. The charges include public incitement and association to commit crimes. In January, the pro-government president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, accused Vecchio, who is living in the United States, of “planning violent acts against the people of Venezuela.” The government has yet to present credible evidence substantiating its claims.

In April 2014 two opposition mayors – Daniel Ceballos of San Cristobal, in Táchira state, and Enzo Scarano of San Diego, in Carabobo state – were arrested for failing to clear the streets of their cities where demonstrators were protesting. Both were convicted in criminal procedures that violated basic due process guarantees, such as the right to appeal their convictions, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Ceballos had not had access to an adequate defense and that his right to be tried by an independent court had been violated.

Scarano was sentenced to 10 months in prison and released in February after serving his sentence. Ceballos is still serving his 12-month sentence.

In December, the Attorney General’s Office charged another leading opposition politician, María Corina Machado, with conspiracy for her alleged involvement in a plot to kill President Nicolas Maduro. The president called Machado an “assassin,” while Cabello, the National Assembly president, accused her of erasing the emails that appear to be the only evidence that prosecutors said they had against her.

On February 19, dozens of members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service forcefully entered Mayor Ledezma’s Caracas office and detained him without showing an arrest warrant, his wife told the news media. That same day, President Maduro said on national TV that Ledezma would be prosecuted for the crimes he committed “against the peace of the country, security, and the Constitution.”

On February 20, the Attorney General’s Office charged Ledezma for his alleged participation in “a conspiracy to organize and execute violent acts against the democratically elected government.” The evidence against him includes a coerced statement from a former military officer accusing him of participating in an attempted coup, his lawyer told the news media. If convicted, Ledezma could be sentenced to up to 26 years in prison. He is being held in the Ramo Verde military prison.

A year after a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and bystanders, there has been virtually no accountability for the scores of abuses – including killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture – committed by security forces, information released by the government shows. While some protesters engaged in violence at some of the 2014 protests, Human Rights Watch research shows that the security forces repeatedly used unlawful force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. 

The government information says that 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, and 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.

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.”

On February 24, 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged Venezuela “not to criminalize opposition political leaders and to guarantee the participation of all sectors of Venezuela’s political life and the human rights of those who identify themselves with the opposition to the government.”

The government of the United States has imposed targeted sanctions against approximately 50 Venezuelan officials accused of committing abuses. The sanctions include refusing or cancelling visas for certain officials and freezing their personal assets in the US.

Under the UNASUR Constitutive Treaty of 2008, “South American integration and union are based on the guiding principles of … democracy, citizen participation and pluralism; [and] universal, interdependent and indivisible human rights.” The treaty also states that, “fully effective democratic institutions and the unrestricted respect for human rights are essential conditions for building a common future of peace, economic and social prosperity and for the development of integration processes among the Member States.”

However, UNASUR and the vast majority of Latin American governments have remained silent regarding the human rights situation in Venezuela. In January, the government of Colombia broke this collective silence by calling for López’s release, after Venezuela refused to allow former President Andrés Pastrana of Colombia and former President Sebastián Piñera of Chile to visit López in prison. In February, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also called for López’s release. The Chilean foreign minister and other politicians from the government’s party and the opposition have also expressed concern regarding the situation in Venezuela.

“By remaining silent about the abuses in Venezuela, the members of UNASUR are betraying its guiding principles and sending a very dangerous signal that the Maduro government should feel free to continue jailing opponents and beating up protesters,” Vivanco said.