The Apostolic Palace – VATICAN CITY
I am writing in advance of your upcoming meeting with President Nicolás Maduro, to be held on Sunday, June 7. We would like to share with Your Holiness Human Rights Watch’s serious concerns regarding the human rights situation in Venezuela, in particular with respect to the jailing of political opponents and lack of accountability for widespread abuses against peaceful protesters, as well as the near total lack of judicial independence in the country, which has made it virtually impossible for these victims to find redress in Venezuela. We are also concerned about the crisis in the health care system, which has left much of the population without access to essential medicines and medical supplies.
We would like to respectfully urge Your Holiness to raise these issues with President Maduro and call on him to adopt concrete measures to address them. Specifically, in order to comply with its international human rights obligations, the Venezuelan government should:
- Immediately and unconditionally release all political opponents and other individuals who are being subject to arbitrary criminal prosecutions;
- Bring to justice all members of security forces responsible for abuses against peaceful protesters;
- Take steps to restore the independence of the judiciary; and
- Implement measures to secure sufficient quantities of basic medicines and medical supplies to cover at least the immediate needs of Venezuelans, and oversee their distribution.
Arbitrary Arrests of Opposition Leaders
Over the past year, Venezuelan authorities have abused the justice system to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute prominent political opponents. These include Leopoldo López, a leader of the opposition political party Voluntad Popular; Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of San Cristóbal, in Táchira State; Vicencio Scarano, former mayor of San Diego, in Carabobo State; Antonio Ledezma, mayor of the Metropolitan District of Caracas; María Corina Machado, a former opposition legislator; and Carlos Vecchio, another leader of Voluntad Popular.
Human Rights Watch has conducted a thorough review of the official documentation in the judicial files for these cases and concluded that in its opinion the prosecutions involved basic due process violations and failed to provide credible evidence linking the accused to a crime.
Leopoldo López was accused by the government of inciting protest-related violence, including attacks against public offices and vehicles, during a demonstration on February 12, 2014. The Attorney General’s Office promptly sought his arrest for several alleged crimes. López turned himself in on February 18 and has been held in the Ramo Verde military prison ever since.
The arrest warrant against López acknowledged that he had left the place where the violent incidents occurred before they happened, and relied, as evidence of his criminal responsibility, on a series of “statements with subliminal messages” he had issued through Twitter. However, it failed to specify how this “subliminal” or indirect discourse had actually led to the commission of crimes.
In April 2014, the Attorney General’s Office accused López of public intimidation, arson, damages, and “association,” defined as belonging to an organized crime group. The office was forced to drop the homicide charges initially brought against him after a Venezuelan newspaper released video footage showing security force members shooting at unarmed protesters. The accusation against López relies on witness statements by 11 government officials or employees, including three who do not even mention López, and analyses of López’s speeches and tweets, including one that accuses López of not behaving as Gandhi did, and of becoming a “trigger that could contribute” to “exacerbation” of protests “due to the present polarization” of Venezuelan politics.
During his trial, the presiding judge refused to allow the defense team to present the vast majority of the evidence they sought to introduce, yet prosecutors failed to present credible evidence to substantiate their accusations. The court discarded all arguments and evidence presented by the defense team, except for two witness testimonies that had also been put forward by the prosecution, according to López’s defense team. In the 11 months since the trial began last July, the court has been reviewing evidence put forward by the prosecution. There is no date yet on which the trial is expected to conclude, or the court likely to render its judgment.
Even though Venezuelan law and international human rights standards state criminal cases should be open to the public, except in very specific circumstances, the general public in Venezuela —in particular, journalists and international observers— were forbidden from attending the hearings of López’s trial.
In March 2014, the Supreme Court summarily tried and sentenced Daniel Ceballos and Vicencio Scarano, two opposition mayors, to 12 and 10-and-a-half months in prison, respectively. 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. During the hearing, the Supreme Court did not allow the defense to present most of the evidence it sought to have considered, and convicted the men immediately after proceedings that lasted no more than 7 hours.
The Supreme Court’s rulings, in this case the court of first instance, are not subject to appeal, which violates the due process right of defendants to appeal a criminal conviction.
Scarano was released after serving the sentence handed down by the Supreme Court, but remains subject to another criminal prosecution before military courts. Scarano is accused of forcibly accessing a polling center during the April 2013 presidential elections, injuring three women, including a member of the military. However, a video of the incidents reviewed by Human Rights Watch suggests that the women allowed Scarano to access the site, and that the door opened towards the other side of where they were standing and so the act of opening the door would not have injured them.
After serving his sentence handed down by the Supreme Court, Ceballos remained in pretrial detention in Ramo Verde in relation to another criminal case in which he was accused of “rebellion” and “association to commit crimes” for allegedly “disregarding the elected government” and “inciting people to set up barricades.”
On May 23, 2015, Ceballos was transferred in the middle of the night to a regular prison in San Juan de los Morros, approximately 150 km away from Caracas, where he is now held with other pre-trial detainees charged with common crimes, unlike in Ramo Verde. Human Rights Watch believes that his current pre-trial detention places his physical safety at real risk. While his transfer to a pre-trial facility may be legitimate, to the best of Human Rights Watch’s knowledge this transfer was adopted without judicial oversight nor were his family or defense team informed, and therefore there was no opportunity to raise well founded concerns for his safety as a result of the transfer. To protest their treatment, both Ceballos and López are currently carrying out hunger strikes that may seriously undermine their health.
On February 19, 2015, dozens of members of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service forcefully entered Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s Caracas office and detained him without showing an arrest warrant, according to his defense team. 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 April 6, the Attorney General’s Office accused Ledezma of conspiracy and association. The evidence against him includes several reports by SEBIN agents, statements by two anonymous witness, a confession made by a former military officer while held in detention (which Ledezma’s defense team claims was coerced), and videos where three men accused of “conspiring for rebellion” are shown together with Ledezma at public events or talking about him.
Ledezma was held in the Ramo Verde military prison until April 24, when he was transferred to house arrest for health reasons.
In December 2014, 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 Diosdado Cabello, 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. Machado had been previously discharged from office as an opposition legislator for testifying at an Organization of American States meeting in Washington using a Panamanian diplomatic representative’s seat. She also has been subject to a court order prohibiting her from leaving the country since June 2014 in relation to another criminal case, pending investigation of her possible involvement; she has not had access to the case file.
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. In January, Cabello accused Vecchio, who is living in the United States, of “planning violent acts against the people of Venezuela.” The government has yet to publicly present credible evidence substantiating its claims.
Several international human rights monitors, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN high commissioner for human rights, the UN Committee Against Torture, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have called on Venezuela to immediately release people who have been arbitrarily detained in Venezuela.
Impunity for Security Force Abuses During 2014 Protests
In our 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 2014 demonstrations. In many of the cases we 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.
More than a year later, there has been little progress on justice for these many abuses. The government reported that, as of November 2014, prosecutors had received 242 complaints of alleged human rights violations during the demonstrations, including two cases of torture, although Human Rights Watch documented more. The Attorney General’s Office reported that prosecutors had concluded 125 investigations, brought charges against 15 members of the 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 sentences passed.
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.
Lack of Access to Basic Medicines and Supplies
The lives and health of tens of thousands of Venezuelans are at risk, given the lack of access to basic medicines and supplies in the country, both in the private and public healthcare systems.
On recent visits to Venezuela, we found shortages of medications to treat pain, asthma, hypertension, diabetes and heart diseases, among others. Syringes, gauze and needles were in short supply, and absence of supplies meant that even basic lab tests could not be performed. In March 2015, Doctors for Health, a network of medical residents working in public hospitals all over the country, reported results from a survey of 130 public hospitals in 19 states that found that 44 percent of operating rooms were not operational and 94 percent of labs did not have the materials they needed to operate properly. They also found that 60 percent of routinely stocked medicines or medical supplies were entirely or partially unavailable in the hospitals, and that a majority of medicines included in the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines were not available in pharmacies. At the end of 2014, public hospitals were wait-listing approximately 20,000 patients for surgery.
This situation is attributable to government policies that have impeded the acquisition and accessibility of medicines and supplies. Venezuela does not have a strong pharmaceutical industry, so the country has to import most medications and medical supplies. Even for medications that are made locally, the raw materials often come from abroad. But currency exchange rules and price controls the government has imposed interfere with the process, resulting in a grossly inadequate supply of essential medications and medical supplies.
Thank you in advance for taking this letter into consideration in preparation for your upcoming meeting with President Maduro.
José Miguel Vivanco
 For more information, see Human Rights Watch, “Punished for Protesting: Rights Violations in Venezuela’s Streets, Detention Centers, and Justice System,” May 2014, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/05/05/punished-protesting .
 For more information, please see Human Rights Watch, “Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez’s Venezuela,” July 2012, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/17/tightening-grip-0
 For more information, please see Human Rights Watch, “Venezuela’s Health Care Crisis,” April 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/29/venezuela-s-health-care-crisis