(New York) – An independent Venezuelan journalist and online activist accused of causing the country’s massive blackout was arbitrarily detained on March 11, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, should call for the immediate release of the journalist, Luis Carlos Díaz.
Díaz left his job at Union Radio station at 5:30 p.m. on March 11 to go home, his wife, Naky Soto, also a journalist, told Human Rights Watch. She said she did not know his whereabouts until 2 a.m., when more than a dozen intelligence agents – some armed – brought him home, handcuffed, to conduct a search. After the search, they told Soto that they would take him back to intelligence headquarters in Caracas.
“Venezuelan authorities act as if they can get away with blatant abuses while representatives from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are in the country,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Bachelet needs to send a clear-cut message that this will not be tolerated by calling for Díaz’s immediate release and requesting full access to all detention facilities, including intelligence headquarters, for her office’s team.”
A team from Bachelet’s office is in Caracas to prepare a future trip by Bachelet to Venezuela. On March 12, Bachelet and her office expressed concern about the “alleged detention” of Díaz and said her team had requested urgent access to Díaz. Her team should be allowed to visit all detention facilities to identify and interview political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.
During the search, Díaz told his wife he had been detained by intelligence agents as he rode his bicycle home. He also told her that they beat him with his helmet and took him away, and that during his detention, the agents beat him and told him they had detained his wife. The officers took away computers, cell phones, and cash, and threatened to plant a corpse in their home and accuse them of homicide if they spoke about the arrest, Soto said.
On March 8, Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Chavista politician, published a video in his TV show’s Twitter account accusing Díaz of being responsible for the massive blackout that has been affecting most of the country. The video includes an edited portion of a homemade internet show made before the blackout that Díaz does with Soto, in which they respond to questions from the public. Díaz is seen talking about how to respond to a blackout, recommending that the audience should go out with their cellphones and register what is happening “until electricity comes back.” Díaz was responding to a question about what people could do in case of an “information blackout,” Soto said.
Cabello’s video accuses “imperialism and its local employees” of attempting to overthrow the government and calls Díaz a “fascist influencer.” The video includes the image of a tweet by US Senator Marco Rubio and another by the National Assembly president Juan Guaidó, saying that “the light will come back when the usurpation of power ends.”
Soto is not aware of the formal charges against her husband. Díaz’s arrest appears consistent with the pattern of systematic arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, and abuses against detainees that Human Rights Watch has documented since 2014.