Human Rights in Venezuela

Over the last decade Venezuelan government has launched widespread attacks on basically all aspects of civil and political rights . The government passed laws, decrees and constitutional amendments to limit the independence of the judiciary, the National Assembly, civil society and the media. It has continuously accused human rights defenders, opposition leaders and journalists of conspiracy, and has sent elected politicians to prison either with and without trial.

After the election of Nicolás Maduro as Hugo Chavez’ successor as president in 2013, the country entered a phase of deteriorating political and economic crisis. The radical increase in violence and impunity in Venezuelan society has generated a general fear for personal safety among the population. There are little no signs that the economic situation will improve; increased inflation, poverty and shortages of basic goods will continue to motivate protests and further repression.

In late August 2015, Nicolas Maduro ordered that the borders with Colombia be closed and a state of emergency in the state of Táchira, as a result of a shootout between Colombian paramilitaries and Venezuelan border patrols. In the following weeks, thousands of Colombians living in Venezuela were deported to Colombia or fled because of fear. The state of emergency has since been extended to 24 municipalities covering most of the border area, and has been prolonged until the end of December. The state of emergency has given the police and military extended powers. Public gatherings of more than five people require permission from the police. This has fuelled suspicion that the measure has been implemented primarily to reduce the opposition’s ability to run an election campaign in the border areas, which is one of the opposition’s main strongholds.

An opposition victory to the ruling PSUV and Nicolás Maduro in the elections to the national assembly on December 6 2015 could be an important step in solving both the political and economic crisis of the country. It is unlikely it will be a smooth process though, as the polarised political climate will make most negotiations between the president and the national assembly difficult.

The situation for human rights defenders in Venezuela
Since the protests during the spring 2014, the space for those working on human rights and democracy has become considerably tighter. Human rights defenders are unable to operate freely and without fear of reprisal. Defenders are frequently threatened with violence, harassment, imprisonment, and in some cases, torture.

During the last years several opposition leaders have also been denied the possibility to work politically. Leopoldo Lopez, one of the most active opposition leaders, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in September 2015 and opposition mayors Daniel Ceballos and Vicencio Scarano, and former member of the National Assembly Maria Corina Machado, have also been stripped of their political rights.

Venezuela is party to the International Covenants on Civil and Political as well as on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICCPR and ICESCR). Nevertheless, in the latest UNHRC Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011 the states that took part in the interactive dialogue with Venezuela formulated numerous recommendations concerning freedom of expression, overcrowded prisons and lack of independence of the judicial branch, among many others, of which, considerable sections were wholly rejected by the Venezuelan government.

Venezuela is a member of the Organization of American States, OAS, but since 2002 the government has not permitted representatives from the Inter-American Human Rights System, IAHRS, to officially visit the country and verify the human rights situation. In September 2012 the government denounced and one year later left the American Convention on Human Rights and the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

The Protests of 2014
The street protests of 2014 began on February 04th in the city of San Cristobal, the capital of the state of Táchira, on the border with Colombia and within a week the protests had become national news. On February 12th tens of thousands of people in Caracas and all over the country marched against the police violence in Táchira and the government. The repression of the protests was excessively violent and the legal processes used against the detainees were characterised by human rights abuses.

According to Foro Penal Venezolano, FPV, 36 people died directly relation to the protests. Out of this number 19 protesters were shot directly by the police, military and armed groups of civilians loyal to the government. The human rights organisation Provea also registered 854 injured individuals again related to the protests of which the actual protesters were responsible for 74 injuries.

From February to May 2014, the FPV registered 3127 arbitrary detentions in relation to the protests, and up until March 2015 another 600. A large part of the detainees have been victims of torture and cruel and degrading treatment, including being punched, kicked, and subjected to beatings with metallic objects and gun’ grips, sexual offenses, electric shocks and harsh verbal aggression. Prisoners are regularly subjected to both physical and psychological torture; isolation, air conditioning put on maximum and being deprived of daylight or permitting the detainees from going outside.

The media is also heavily repressed. Most of the violations have been initiated by the authorities or armed groups loyal to the government, but some have also been initiated by protesters. The Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público has registered 325 violations against freedom of expression of journalists during the protests some of them involved direct censorship of media outlets and harassment from President Maduro himself.

Ten rights in focus

The right to life and physical integrity

Since the late 80s, violence has become an increasing threat to human rights in Venezuela. The homicide rate rose from 9 per 100 000 inhabitants in the 1980s to 20 in 1998 when Hugo Chavez was elected. According to Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia the violence has since risen to levels which are among the highest in the world reaching a homicide rate of 82, with a total of 25 000 homicides in 2014.

The perpetrators are mainly from organised criminal groups, including those claiming to support the government, as well as from the police and military. According to the UN’s Committee Against Torture, (CAT), among the total of those killed by the police and military forces, there were more than 600 extrajudicial executions per year during both 2012 and 2013.

At the same time the risk for the police falling victim to violence has increased considerably. In 2010, 59 police officers were killed in the metropolitan area of Caracas. In 2012 it was 106 and in 2014 132. At least 250 police officers were killed nationwide in 2014. This trend has demoralised the entire police force and pushes officers to leave the police and start working for private security companies.

Although Venezuela is party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Law against Torture has serious shortcomings. The law is only applicable when victims are under the custody of a public official, and not when torture, pain or suffering are inflicted by another person exercising public functions or on the street, as was the case during the protests 2014.

The right to liberty and security of person

During 2014 and 2015, at least 3700 persons, including more than 370 adolescents, were detained as a result of demonstrations. As of June 2015 approximately 2000 were still under precautionary measures such as being prohibited from leaving the country or talking to the press. In November 2015 there were still 27 people in prison because of their participation in the protests of 2014.

According to FPV, the total number of political prisoners in the country stands at 74. Out of these, six are in prison for criticising the government through social media, two for civil rebellion and 16 for military rebellion.

The conditions of prisons and the environment for inmates in Venezuela in terms of security, infrastructure and administration is one of the worst in the world. More than 60% of the 51 000 prisoners have not received sentences. The level of violence within the prison system is extremely high. According to CAT, since 2004 at least 4791 people have been killed, and 9931 injured. Observatorio Penal de Prisiones calculates that 309 inmates were killed during 2014;which nevertheless is a significant drop from the previous ten years.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

The right to a fair trial and effective remedy has been seriously challenged due to structural, but also ideological gaps within the Venezuelan judiciary. The lack of judicial independence has been evident during recent years, as government officials publicly accuse human rights activists, opposition leaders, journalists, etc. of conspiracy, being CIA agents or instigators against the revolution. These public accusations often end in judicial processes.

In 2009, for example, President Chavez denounced the judge María Lourdes Afiuni as a “bandit” on national TV after she had authorised the conditional release of a government critic who had spent three years in prison awaiting trial, and called for her to be sentenced to 30 years in prison. Afiuni later spent three and a half years in prison and under house arrest, until she was released under precautionary measures.

Another example is the case of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who in February 2014 handed himself in after a “mediatised” persecution for instigating the protests. When the trial opened in July 2014, President Nicolas Maduro explained: “[Lopez] has to pay, and he will pay, it is that easy”. Maduro also claimed that Lopez was “responsible for crimes, violence and destruction of human lives”. In September 2015 Lopez was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison for inciting violence during the protests. According to his defence team, the judge heard 138 witnesses for the prosecution but only one of the 50 witnesses and pieces of evidence submitted by the defence.

Detention times before formal presentation to a judicial officer often exceeds the maximum deadlines. As an example, most of the detentions of protesters during 2014 were made on flagrant allegations and without basic burden of proofs. Documents from courts often mention the assumed political position of the detainee, and what consequences these opinions supposedly have had for the country.

Corruption and impunity are also serious concerns for human rights in Venezuela. In 1998 there were 4550 homicides in the country, and 5017 detentions for homicide, slightly more than one detention per homicide. In 2008 the number of homicides had tripled to 14589, but the detentions dropped to 1356. The police detained less than one person for every ten homicides in the country that year. The impunity was almost total, and the situation has not improved since, which is one of the main causes of the radical increase in homicide the last decades.

The right to respect for private and family life

Due to the state of insecurity and proliferation of violence surrounding political demonstrations across the country, respect for private and family life has been largely ignored. During the protests in 2014, official forces in collusion with private gangs initiated indiscriminate assaults on Venezuelans’ residences. On several occasions during the protests, official forces fired tear gas into homes without taking into account the possible presence of children and elderly. Threats and intimidations against families and close relatives are often employed as a means to create false statements and facilitate conviction of human rights defenders.

According to various lawyers representing the protesters during 2014, it has become a rule that the police confiscate the cell phones of the detainees and never return them, creating suspicion that they use contacts and images to map potential networks of critics.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Despite the formal freedom that the Constitution grants, freedom of conscience discrimination occurs because of ones political opinions Critics of the government have been fired from state agencies and from the national oil company and access to social programs has also been denied to them.

The reduction of political pluralism in the country and the constant attacks of the government against their critics constitute a risk for Venezuelans’ freedom of thought because they have became afraid of thinking and expressing opinions contrary to the government ´s ideology.

The right to the freedom of expression

The Venezuelan Constitution grants the right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, freedom of expression has become severely curtailed since the adoption of a new “broadcasting law” in 2004. The law establishes several controls over content and the country’s mass media, including the suspension of channels for the offense of “encouraging unrest among citizens or disturbing the public order”.

Through the governmental agency CONATEL (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones) the government has also prohibited commercial spots on TV that criticise government policies, a decision that the Supreme Court upheld. The government has also made it obligatory private TV channels to air spots celebrating the government and broadcasting smear campaigns against protesters for free.

The government has increased its control over the media in Venezuela, and controls a number of TV-channels, a news agency and a whole conglomerate of newspapers, radio stations, websites and a magazine within the National System of Public Media. Under allegations of administrative irregularities and lack of compliance with the law, several radio and TV stations have been shut down through discretional decree. One of the first to be closed down was Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), a private channel who had been transmitting since 1953. It was closed down in May 2007. In 2015 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the RCTV should be given back its frequency, as it had been closed down because the government wanted to silence its critical editorial line.

The main independent newspapers such as El Nacional, El Universal and Tal Cual have been unable to purchase dollars at the official rates, which limits their ability to import paper for publishing purposes. The lack of paper is the main reason as to why many publications carry less than half the number of pages now compared to a couple of years ago. This problem does not affect newspapers loyal to the government to the same extent.

Freedom of expression advocate Espacio Público continuously reports on physical and oral aggression, judicial harassment and administrative obstructions against journalists perpetrated by the police, military and other actors loyal to the government. Nevertheless, aggression has not been an exclusive feature of just government supporters. In fact, journalists have also been attacked when covering opposition events although to a lesser extent.

Another challenge that has emerged for human rights activists relates to the lack of transparent information available from governmental bodies. The norms on how to manage public information established in 2010 severely limit the public’s access to information by giving the public entities the right to classify information according to its own priorities. Since the adoption of these norms it has become increasingly difficult for non-governmental actors to get access to public information.
The right to freedom of assembly and association

Since the creation of “security zones” in 2002, public demonstrations or protests have been limited or prohibited in as much as 30 per cent of Venezuelan territory. Despite the constitutional protection contained in articles 53 and 68 regarding freedom of assembly and therefore demonstrations, an extraordinary ordinance from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) on April 24, 2014 suspended the guaranties for the exercise of peaceful protests.

The same judicial authority has ruled that NGOs receiving financial support from abroad could also be charged with treason if the resources received are used against the Republic. Additionally, a law from 2010 concerning the defence of national self-determination against external involvement through organisations working with political aims or in favour of political rights, prohibits such organisations from receiving economic support from international sources, and obliges them to exist exclusively on national funds.

In 2009, the Inter American Commission for Human Rights expressed its concern in respect of a survey in which the Venezuelan Central Bank asked 500 questions on sensitive financial information from many of the main human rights organisations in the country.

In January 2015 the Venezuelan Defence Ministry adopted a resolution on how the national armed forces should be used when controlling public order at outdoors protests and demonstrations. The resolution legitimises the use of the armed forces in these situations, in total contradiction with international standards and the Venezuelan Constitution, which establishes that the police are the only authority in charge of controlling demonstrations and protests. The resolution also legitimises the use of “potentially lethal force, be it with a firearm or with another potentially lethal weapon” when a soldier is in risk of death. Within the context of the last years’ protests, this resolution creates the risk of legitimising the direct use of lethal violence by armed forces in controlling a demonstration.

The right to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

The polarisation of Venezuelan politics is widely a result of the excessive use of disqualifying adjectives by government officials against their critics. Verbal attacks have also been levied against easy-identifiable targets such as foreign governments and organisations. Much of these have their origin in the TV-show Con el Mazo Dando which features the speaker of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello. When the local NGO IPYS analysed nine shows broadcasted from October through to December 2014, they found that Cabello had referred to critics as fascists and destabilisers, and linked them to a conspiracy on 25 occasions. In total 165 persons were mentioned in these programs. This naming and shaming-strategy works as a threat against those mentioned, and creates fear that semi-independent armed groups loyal to the government will attack them.

Another important example of the government’s hate speech tactics against critics was a declaration by the Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton, in March 2015. In a discussion on national TV about the so-called threat of an US invasion, Chaderton described the difference in sound between a bullet passing the head of a chavista – a government supporter – and the head of a “squalid one” – a government critic. He said that “the sound a squalid head produces is much lower, it is like a snap, as the cranial vault is hollow”.

The right to political rights

According to Article 67 of the Constitution, political parties are banned from receiving public funding. However in practical terms that provision only applies to the opposition. TV-shows on national channels, as well as social programs funded by the government are continuously used to promote the ruling PSUV-party.

The Supreme Court has ruled that it is possible to ban individuals from running for public office even before being charged or sentenced for corruption. This has been used against several senior opposition politicians from various parties.

The detentions of opposition mayors Daniel Ceballos, Enzo Scarano and Antonio Ledezma in early 2015, and the dismissal of Maria Corina Machado as a member of the National Assembly in 2014 were clear violations of their political rights as well as the rights of their voters.

When opposition election observers presented a long list of irregularities after the presidential elections of 2013, the incumbent President Nicolas Maduro first promised to investigate them, but later refused to do so, creating a suspicion that the votes of many citizens were never counted for.

The right to protection against discrimination

The Venezuelan Constitution prohibits discrimination and discriminatory messages. Nevertheless, in late August and the beginning of September 2015 more than 1 000 Colombians were deported from Venezuela to Colombia and tens of thousands fled in fear, after the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro publically accused Colombians living in Venezuela of being paramilitaries, smugglers and the ones causing food shortages.

In addition to these accusations, thousands of houses where Colombians used to live were raided and destroyed by official forces that did not have a judicial warrant. Colombians who were deported were neither given the opportunity to challenge their expulsion from Venezuela nor have the opportunity to pick up their belongings.

The Role of Civil Rights Defenders in Venezuela
Civil Rights Defenders has broad contacts in the human rights movement in Venezuela, and regularly invites Venezuelan human rights defenders to Defenders’ Days. In November 2015 we published a report on the up-coming elections to the national assembly ”Elections in Venezuela – Leaving Democracy Behind” democracy-behind/ based on reports from a various of the most important human rights organisations in the country.

Categories: Country Reports.
Tags: Country Report and Venezuela.
Regions: Latin America and Venezuela.