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New Accounts Describe Abusive Prosecution of Civilians by Military Courts

Joint Statement by the Venezuelan Penal Forum and Human Rights Watch

As of May 15, the Venezuelan Penal Forum has obtained information regarding the prosecution of at least 275 civilians by military courts in Venezuela. In all these cases, the Venezuelan Penal Forum has directly assisted detainees or verified information regarding the prosecutions through direct contact with family members. Human Rights Watch interviewed several of the lawyers representing detainees. The cases include the prosecution of 192 civilians in Carabobo state, 19 in Falcon state, 20 in Zulia state, 18 in Caracas, 13 in Lara state, 10 in Sucre state, two in Barinas state, and one in Táchira state. 159 of these defendants were in pretrial detention as of May 12. Detainees are being held in military prisons, prisons for detainees subject to military prosecution, high-security prisons, or in headquarters of the intelligence services.

While no public record of these proceedings is available—a problem in its own right—the accounts by lawyers and family members include many disturbing allegations of abuses and procedural defects in the conduct of these prosecutions, including the following:

  • Detainees being subjected to physical and other abuses that may in some cases amount to torture at the moment of their arrest or during detention.
  • Hearings being held in military courts or other military installations, presided over by military judges who report to the Minister of Defense, and sometimes in the presence of armed guards.
  • Judges charging large groups of protesters with crimes en masse, without any individualized consideration of the evidence against them.
  • Hearing times not being specified in advance, leaving independent lawyers and families waiting at the entrance of military facilities or courts for hours. Lawyers say that when hearings are held, they are sometimes not able to enter the courtroom; when they are allowed to enter, they often are only able to speak to detainees a few minutes before the hearings, only have access to the criminal file when they are at the hearing, and cannot take pictures or copies of the files.
  • Protesters being charged with serious crimes under the military code, such as “rebellion” and “treason,” for alleged acts of violence at protests.

Accounts of the proceedings provided by lawyers who attended the hearings

On May 5, 40 people who had been detained separately near a food company in Valencia, Carabobo state, which had been looted a day earlier, were brought before a military judge in an improvised courtroom inside military headquarters. The hearing started at 7 p.m. and lasted 12 hours. During the hearing, most detainees showed bruises that they said were caused by members of the National Guard who beat them, sometimes with an aluminum bar or a baseball bat. Some claimed the officers cut their hair during their detention. At least 15 said they were forced to eat raw pasta with human excrement—the officers allegedly put teargas powder in their noses so they would be forced to open their mouths to eat. Without individualizing the criminal responsibility of each, all 40 were charged with rebellion. The military judge admitted the charges against all, but sent only 19 to the high-security prison “26 of July” in Guárico state, without providing any explanation, the lawyer said. The others were released on conditional liberty.

On May 6, Carlos Sardi, a man who collaborates with local groups working with cancer patients and on LGBT rights, was detained while he was protesting with his wife in Valencia, Carabobo state. Sardi said that he was brutally beaten and forced to wear a black hood, while authorities he could not see asked him about people who had allegedly been involved in the protests. Prosecutors argued he had been in phone contact with other protesters, and was carrying Molotov cocktails, nails, and gasoline—evidence he claims was planted. Sardi was taken before a military court and charged with rebellion, treason, and contempt. A military judge ordered his pretrial detention in the “26 of July” security prison in Guárico state.

On May 9, 16 people who had been detained in different circumstances in La Villa de Rosario were brought together before a military court in Maracaibo, Zulia state. The detainees included a man who said he was walking home from work when he was picked up by the National Guard, and two brothers who said they were working on the roof of their home and were detained without a judicial order. Two others were reportedly taken from the hospital—one said he was there after suffering a domestic accident and the other said that he was a government supporter who had been hit by a bottle in a protest—to the offices of the investigative police to declare who had injured them, and were then detained. Eight of the 16 detainees claimed they were beaten by members of the National Guard when they were detained, and that the officers spread a white powder on their faces that caused a burning sensation and made them cry, which they described as being similar to the effect of teargas bombs. The lawyers who were able to enter the hearing—which took place inside a military installation—were searched by officers and were not allowed to take their cellphones or personal belongings into the hearing. There were no female officers, so female lawyers were physically searched by male military officers. On May 11, the prosecutor charged the 16 detainees with rebellion and insult to a sentinel, without specifying what each of them had done. The judge accepted the charges against all detainees, but ruled seven would be held in pretrial detention at the Santa Ana prison, an installation for people prosecuted in military courts, without providing any explanation for the distinction, the lawyer said. The rest were released on conditional liberty.

Sergio Contreras, an activist with the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) opposition party and a lawyer who taught at the Catholic University Andrés Bello, said that on May 10, he was beaten and detained by members of the Bolivarian National Police while he was demonstrating in Caracas. Contreras said he was speaking to a group of students with a megaphone. Contreras was taken before a military court on May 12 and charged with rebellion, treason, and “stealing military material” (based on a firearm he said was planted). The judge accepted the charges, ordered his pretrial detention, and sent him to the Ramo Verde military prison.

On May 11, Lisbeth Añez, an activist who has visited political prisoners detained in Venezuela, was arrested at the Caracas airport when she was boarding a flight to Miami. She was taken before a military court in Caracas a day later, and charged with rebellion and treason based on evidence that included alleged WhatsApp messages that lawyers say are not described in judicial documents, as well as books, letters, and recognitions of her social work. This evidence, according to the court, proved she was promoting violent acts, in light of the “notoriety” of the fact that Venezuelan protests are violent, the lawyers said. She was ordered detained at the headquarters of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Services in Caracas.

International human rights standards

Both Venezuelan and international law provide that civilians should not be prosecuted before military courts. The Venezuelan Constitution, in article 261, limits military jurisdiction to crimes that are of a military nature. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Venezuela ratified in 1978, guarantees the right to a timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. In 2015, the Human Rights Committee, the expert body charged with interpreting the ICCPR, expressed concern that military courts in Venezuela are competent to try civilians under certain circumstances and called on the Venezuelan government to “adopt the necessary measures to prohibit military courts from trying civilians.” Similarly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that military courts should not try civilians.

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