Dear President Santos,
I am writing to respectfully urge you to adopt all measures at your disposal to seek the immediate release of 61 people—including 60 Colombians and a Venezuelan citizen unduly deported back to his country from Colombia—who are currently detained in Venezuela.
The cases described below, which have been documented by Human Rights Watch, include the arbitrary arrest in Venezuela of 59 Colombian nationals who were detained in August 2016 during the so-called “Operation to Liberate the People” (OLP)—a series of abusive police and military raids with the alleged purpose of combatting insecurity. Juan Pedro Lares, also a Colombian national, was arbitrarily detained in July 2017. Another of the cases concerns Lorent Saleh, a Venezuelan national who was deported from Colombia in September 2014 and suffered abuse while in detention in Venezuela; Colombia has a legal obligation not to return any person to a state where there are substantial grounds to believe he or she may be tortured.
We deeply regret that, despite the gravity of the situation, you appear not to have prioritized adopting measures to secure the release of these Colombian nationals and the Venezuelan citizen, Lorent Saleh. Human Rights Watch is aware that your government has adopted a series of diplomatic measures in the cases involving Colombian nationals, and we commend the fact that recently you have been a forceful critic of deteriorating conditions for human rights and democracy in Venezuela, and your government is adopting humanitarian measures to help Venezuelans arriving in Colombia. Indeed, yesterday, during the visit to Colombia of the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, you said that there is an “urgent need to restore the democratic order in Venezuela, because its citizens are suffering the consequences of a drifting dictatorship,” and promised to provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans who emigrate to Colombia.
Yet, due precisely to the rapid deterioration of basic guarantees in neighboring Venezuela, it is critical that your administration urgently considers adopting measures such as those described in this letter to ensure that these people are promptly released. Based on Human Rights Watch’s extensive research on Venezuela, we are convinced that without strong pressure from the international community headed by the affected government, which in this case is the Colombian one, the possibility of their release is minimal or nonexistent.
Since 2015, the Venezuelan government has carried out a series of police and military raids called “Operation to Liberate the People” (OLP) with the alleged purpose of combating rampant crime in the country. Human Rights Watch and the Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA have documented widespread allegations of abuse during these operations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, forced evictions, the destruction of homes and the arbitrary deportation of Colombian nationals often accused without evidence of having links to “paramilitaries.” Venezuelan senior officials publicly scapegoated Colombian nationals, which may have helped fuel the climate that led to hundreds of cases of alleged abuse by security forces.
On September 1, 2016, President Nicolás Maduro announced that 92 people had been detained in a “Colombian paramilitary camp” close to the presidential palace in Caracas, as part of an OLP. Some detainees were picked up while they were walking down the street, told they would be deported, and then jailed, according to press reports.
Some detainees fled, but 61 remained behind bars. On November 21, 2017, a Venezuelan judge ordered the PNB to unconditionally release the 61, arguing that “they were not caught while committing a crime” and there was “no arrest warrant” in their criminal file. Under Venezuelan law, they should have been immediately released. However, since then, one of the detainees died in prison and another was released for humanitarian reasons. At time of writing, 59 remained behind bars.
Juan Pedro Lares
On July 30, dozens of members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the Bolivarian National Police (PNB), and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services (SEBIN), as well as members of armed pro-government groups called colectivos in Venezuela, burst into the home of Omar Lares, the opposition mayor of the Campo Elías municipality in Mérida state. The mayor was subject to a Supreme Court injunction that in other, similar cases had led to the arbitrary conviction and political disqualification of several opposition mayors.
The mayor and most of his family were able to escape, but Juan Pedro Lares, his 23-year-old son and a Colombian national, was captured and has since been arbitrarily detained.
An employee of the Lares family who was there when the security forces stormed the house said the officers forced him and Juan Pedro to kneel on the ground, handcuffed them, and told them they could shoot them at any time “because no one was watching.” They threatened to spray both with gasoline and set them on fire, he said, “if they did not tell them where the firearms were.” They also placed a gun to Juan Pedro’s head, threatening to kill him “if he didn’t tell the truth,” and then hit him on the neck with it. They let the employee go, and drove Juan Pedro away in an official SEBIN vehicle.
During detention, Juan Pedro Lares was forced to stand beside weapons and a police shield, while others took photos of him in an apparent effort to plant evidence against him, according to his mother, who visited him in detention. She claims her son was subject to “physical and psychological mistreatment” during detention.
Juan Pedro is still being held at the Helicoide, one of SEBIN’s headquarters in Caracas. He has not been charged with any crime or been taken before a judge.
On September 4, 2014, Colombian immigration agents detained Lorent Saleh, a Venezuelan student leader and government critic, in Bogota. The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Saleh was being deported because he had engaged in proselytism, which Colombian law prohibits foreigners from doing. It also stated that Saleh had no legal permit to stay in Colombia, and that he was facing “several” criminal cases in Venezuela.
Saleh was flown to Cúcuta, on the border with Venezuela, and handed over to SEBIN agents. The agents transferred Saleh to intelligence headquarters in Caracas, where he spent two years in underground cells that are commonly referred to in Venezuela as “the tomb.” He spent months in a cell that had white walls and a bright light on, sometimes 24 hours per day, and he was not allowed to wear a watch to know what time of the day it was. The cell’s temperature was around 8 degrees Celsius, according to his mother, who was able to visit him in another room several times. His mother said that medical reports confirm that these detention conditions caused serious health consequences to her son, including difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety, and two suicide attempts.
Saleh indeed had a criminal case open against him in Venezuela. In September 2010, GNB members detained Saleh in Valencia, Carabobo state, carrying flyers that said “Chávez lies” and included statistics on security, inflation, and corruption in the country. A prosecutor then charged him with several crimes, accusing him of disseminating false information that causes “anxiety” to the public, according to his mother. A judge authorized his conditional release, ordering him to present himself before the courts every 20 days and stay in Carabobo state.
Saleh left the country in 2013. Since then, the powerful Chavista politician Diosdado Cabello has repeatedly accused Saleh of attempting to undermine Venezuelan democracy.
When Saleh was returned to Venezuela in 2014, a judge revoked his conditional liberty. The judicial document revoking it is dated September 6, 2014; that is, two days after Saleh’s arrest in Colombia, his mother said. In subsequent days, he was accused of forging Venezuelan IDs for Colombians and participating in a conspiracy against the government, charges that his mother said were based on fabricated evidence.
In March 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights adopted precautionary measures in favor of Saleh, ordering the Venezuelan government to adopt measures to protect his life and physical integrity.
At time of writing, more than three years since his arrest in Colombia, Saleh remained in detention in SEBIN headquarters in Caracas and had yet to be brought before a judge. The prosecutor in charge of his case requested his release in July 2017, but the judge has yet to rule on that request. His preliminary hearing, which under Venezuelan law should take place within 45 days of someone’s detention, has been postponed 45 times.
Whether or not your administration knew or suspected that Saleh’s prosecution in Venezuela could be politically motivated, by returning Saleh to Venezuela the Colombian government may have violated its international obligation not to send someone back to a jurisdiction in which he or she may be tortured. Under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Colombia ratified in 1987, no state party “shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
To determine if there are such grounds, authorities should evaluate “all relevant considerations,” including if there is a “pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.” By September 2014, there was plenty of public evidence of the Venezuelan government’s abuses against critics, including a Human Rights Watch report published in May that described systematic human rights violations against protesters and bystanders in early 2014. In light of all this, we believe that your government has a responsibility to work to secure the release of this individual who has been tortured and arbitrarily detained since his deportation to Venezuela.
We are aware that Colombian authorities have sent many diplomatic notes to the Venezuelan government about the OLP case, and that the Foreign Affairs Ministry has offered support to the Lares family, including by ensuring they have access to see Juan Pedro while in detention.
However, Human Rights Watch has been unable to find any public information regarding measures adopted by the Colombian government related to Lorent Saleh’s detention since he was returned to Venezuela, nor on your administration’s assessment prior to his deportation regarding the possibility that he could be tortured in Venezuela. Saleh’s mother visited Colombia in October 2016 with the purpose of meeting with Colombian authorities, but no government official from the executive branch received her. In response to her meeting request, the Foreign Affairs Ministry sent her a letter stating that given that her son was a Venezuelan citizen who was in Venezuela, the ministry “did not have powers to comment or intervene.”
In any case, the steps that have been taken were clearly insufficient to secure the release of these 61 people, who continue to be arbitrarily detained in Venezuela. We deeply regret that neither you nor your Foreign Affairs Minister have publicly and forcefully denounced the arbitrary detention of Juan Pedro Lares nor the abuses suffered by Lorent Saleh since his deportation, and that Foreign Affairs Minister Holguin has only sporadically commented on the case of the 59 Colombians detained during the OLP raid.
To increase international pressure to ensure the prompt release of these abuse victims, we respectfully urge you to take further steps, including:
- Beginning an international campaign denouncing the arbitrary detention of the 60 Colombians whose cases are described in this letter, and the abuses suffered by Lorent Saleh in Venezuela;
- Supporting efforts by the Lares family to request precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and a decision from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
- Officially sharing information your government has obtained about all these cases with competent international human rights bodies, so they can adopt relevant measures;
- Denouncing these arbitrary detentions during multilateral meetings regarding Venezuela’s crisis, including with the Lima Group, so this group adopts this matter as one of its priorities; and
- Supporting international efforts to bring Venezuelan officials responsible for these and other abuses to justice and to impose targeted sanctions against them, including cancelling visas and freezing their assets.
José Miguel Vivanco
Human Rights Watch
General Óscar Naranjo, Vice President of Colombia
María Ángela Holguín, Foreign Affairs Minister of Colombia
 “Urge restaurar el cauce de la democracia en Venezuela, afirma el Presidente Santos,” (Urgent need to restore democracy in Venezuela, says President Santos), Presidency of Colombia, February 6, 2018, http://es.presidencia.gov.co/noticia/180206-Urge-restaurar-el-cauce-de-la-democracia-en-Venezuela-afirma-el-Presidente-Santos (accessed February 7, 2018).
 Human Rights Watch and Provea, Venezuela—Unchecked power: Police and Military Raids in Low-Income and Immigrant Communities in Venezuela, April 4, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/04/04/unchecked-power/police-and-military-raids-low-income-and-immigrant-communities
 “Capturan a paramilitares cerca de sede de Gobierno en Venezuela” (Paramilitaries detained close to Venezuela’s Presidential Palace), September 1, 2016, https://www.telesurtv.net/news/Capturan-a-paramilitares-cerca-de-casa-de-Gobierno-en-Venezuela-20160901-0062.html (accessed January 30, 2018).
 “El drama de los 59 costeños presos por ‘mercenarios’” (The drama of the 59 people from the coast who are imprisoned for being ‘mercenaries’), El Heraldo, October 8, 2017, https://www.elheraldo.co/mundo/el-drama-de-59-costenos-presos-por-mercenarios-409965 (accessed January 30, 2018).
 Judicial ruling by Judge 27th with judicial control powers in the Caracas area, File No. 1725-17, November 21, 2017 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).
 Human Rights Watch interview with Sergio Aranguren, defense lawyer of the 59 Colombians, February 1, 2018.
 Supreme Court of Venezuela, Constitutional Chamber, May 24, 2017, https://www.civilisac.org/civilis/wp-content/uploads/Sentencia-372-Sala-Constitucional-24-5-17-Alcalde-Municipio-Campo-El%C3%ADas-M%C3%A9rida.pdf (accessed February 2, 2018).
 Human Rights Watch interviews with Omar Lares and Ramona Rangel Colmenares, parents of Juan Pedro Lares, August 6 and September 11, 2017; audio message from Lares family’s employee on file at Human Rights Watch.
 Injunction filed by Ramona Emilia Rangel Colmenares, Juan Pedro’s mother, December 4, 2017, page 8 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).
 Human Rights Watch interview with Alfredo Romero, Penal Forum director, January 29, 2018. The Penal Forum is part of Lares’ defense team in Venezuela.
 Human Rights Watch interview with Yamile Saleh, mother of Lorent Saleh, February 3, 2018. Unless noted otherwise, this account is based on that interview and a detailed summary of the case provided to Human Rights Watch by Yamile Saleh, January 30, 2018. It was corroborated by the Penal Forum.
 Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the decision to expel a Venezuelan citizen from national territory” (Comunicado del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores sobre la decisión de expulsar del Territorio nacional al ciudadano venezolano), September 5, 2014, http://www.cancilleria.gov.co/comunicado-del-ministerio-relaciones-exteriores-sobre-la-decision-expulsar-del-territorio-nacional (accessed February 2, 2018).
 See, for example, “Behind the right’s attacks there is a big paramilitary infrastructure” (Cabello: Detrás de los ataques de la derecho hay un gran aparataje paramilitar), PSUV, August 20, 2015, http://www.psuv.org.ve/temas/noticias/diosdado-cabello-mazo-dando-psuv-ataques-derecha-aparataje-paramilitar-desestabilizacion/#.WnRT4ainGUk (accessed February 2, 2018); “Shameless Squadron. Lorent Saleh. We have the Snipers” (Escuadrón cara e table Lorent Saleh. Tenemos los francotiradores), YouTube video uploaded on September 25, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJSAYGAP75M (accessed February 2, 2018).
 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Precautionary Measure 223-13, March 2, 2015, https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/decisiones/pdf/2015/MC223-13-ES.pdf (accessed February 3, 2018).
 Organic Code of Criminal Prosecution, art. 236.
 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx (accessed February 2, 2018), art. 3.
 Human Rights Watch, Venezuela—Punished for Protesting: Rights Violations in Venezuela’s Streets, Detention Centers, and Justice System, May 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/05/05/punished-protesting/rights-violations-venezuelas-streets-detention-centers-and
 Letter from Frank Alberto Godoy Casadiego, director of immigration, consular matters, and citizen services of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, to Yamile Saleh, November 4, 2016; Human Rights Watch interview with Yamile Saleh, February 3, 2018.