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Children eat lunch at Madre Asunción's community kitchen, which is ran by the NGO Alimenta La Solidaridad, on October 9, 2019 in Petare, Caracas, Venezuela. © Leonardo Fernández Viloria/Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – Venezuelan authorities are harassing and criminally prosecuting civil society organizations that are doing essential work to address the ongoing humanitarian emergency in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

Starting in November 2020, Venezuelan authorities under Nicolás Maduro and security forces have carried out a systematic campaign against human rights and humanitarian groups operating in the country that includes freezing bank accounts, issuing arrest warrants, and raiding offices, as well as detaining some members for questioning. Meanwhile, banking authorities are imposing restrictions that limit civil society groups’ ability to operate in the country, and the government has failed to provide key humanitarian aid agencies with permits for international staff to enter the country.

“By blocking the work of aid organizations in the midst of a humanitarian emergency, with children going hungry and Covid-19 patients in need of adequate treatment, Venezuelan authorities are showing they care more about repressing their people than helping them,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community needs to strongly and urgently press Venezuelan authorities to allow Venezuelan and international humanitarian groups to operate and to avoid further preventable loss of life.”

On November 23, the Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant for six aid workers from Alimenta la Solidaridad, a charity that runs 239 soup kitchens providing food for 25,000 children and delivers 1,500 free daily meals to healthcare workers providing assistance during the pandemic, and from the international group Save the Children. The charges are money laundering and belonging to an illicit association. The activists have not had access to the criminal file in the case against them.

On November 24, agents from the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional de Venezuela (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service or SEBIN) raided former offices of Alimenta la Solidaridad in Caracas, without providing any warrant. The following day, they raided the home of its founder’s parents, asking about his whereabouts.

The work these soup kitchens provide is essential. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) considers food security and nutrition a key concern in Venezuela. In 2019, a World Food Program assessment estimated that 2.3 million Venezuelans were severely food insecure and an additional 7 million moderately food insecure. In some low-income communities, over 14 percent of children under age 5 were malnourished, according to a July report by Caritas.

While Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders or MSF) has provided increasing humanitarian aid to Venezuela over the past year, on November 24 it announced it would withdraw from Ana Francisca Pérez de León II hospital in Caracas, where it had been helping with the Covid-19 response since March. With their withdrawal, 150 health professionals left the hospital, and nearly 100 more stopped receiving support from MSF. The Venezuelan government never responded to MSF’s requests for work permits, thereby preventing its staff from entering Venezuela. MSF had brought on Venezuelan personnel and provided remote consultations, but ultimately could not provide the needed care to Covid-19 patients without gaining access for its own specialists and staff.

On December 15, agents of the Fuerza de Acción Especial (Special Action Forces or FAES), a special unit of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB), raided the offices of Convite, a human rights organization that monitors the rights of older people in Venezuela and has distributed humanitarian aid to 4,500 people in several states. Officers showed Convite staff what they said was a search warrant that allowed them to search for explosives, weapons, and terrorism-related activities, but they did not provide a copy of it.

The agents seized three computers and two cellphones for several hours, and took Convite’s director, Luis Francisco Cabezas, and its administrative manager, Patrizzia Latini, to FAES headquarters for questioning. The agents confiscated their phones, denied them access to their lawyers, and interrogated them for two hours before letting them go.

FAES has been implicated in egregious abuses, including extrajudicial killings. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has expressed concern that authorities may have used FAES agents to generate fear among local populations by using excessive force in the context of security operations, breaking into houses, taking personal belongings, and perpetrating acts of violence.

In addition, on November 20, the institution that controls banks – Superintendencia de las Instituciones del Sector Bancario (SUDEBAN) – required banks to more closely monitor the financial operations of national and international nonprofit organizations, to identify the senders and recipients of their funds. Alimenta la Solidaridad said that SUDEBAN also ordered the organization’s bank accounts be frozen, impeding it from accessing funds required for its humanitarian activities.

SUDEBAN also restricted the use of prepaid cards in US dollars that companies or organizations have been using to pay salaries and benefits to their employees, given the devaluation of Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar. This measure further interferes with human rights and humanitarian groups’ ability to retain personnel and operate.

Also in November, the powerful politician Diosdado Cabello, an ally of Maduro and elected member of the National Assembly, announced that the new National Assembly would adopt a law to regulate the ability of groups to obtain international funds.

The National Assembly is scheduled to take office on January 5, 2021, despite widespread condemnation that legislative elections on December 6 were neither free nor fair. Cabello has repeatedly threatened to introduce measures regulating international funding for organizations in the country, including as president of the National Constituent Assembly, de facto legislative power in Venezuela since 2017.

On December 18, UN human rights experts urged Venezuelan authorities to end their crackdown on civil society organizations. Under international law, governments need to ensure that human rights defenders can pursue their legitimate activities without reprisals, threats, intimidation, harassment, discrimination, or unnecessary legal obstacles. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has held that “[R]espect for human rights in a democratic state depends, to a large extent, on effective and adequate guarantees enjoyed by human rights advocates to freely conduct their activities, and special attention should be paid to actions limiting or hindering, whether directly or indirectly, the work of human rights advocates.”

Venezuelan authorities are also obligated under international human rights law to respect, promote, and fulfill the economic, social, and cultural rights of people in Venezuela, including their rights to an adequate standard of living, food, and the highest attainable standard of health.

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