Yesterday, Human Rights Watch released a report on the situation in Venezuela titled “Punished for Protesting”.

The report states that some time in March, Human Rights watch visited the states of Carabobo, Lara and Miranda, and conducted “scores of interviews with abuse victims, their families, eyewitnesses, medical professionals, journalists, and human rights defenders”.

Here are some notable parts I picked out of the report:

General findings and conclusions:

“What we found during our in-country investigation and subsequent research is a pattern of serious abuse. In 45 cases, we found strong evidence of serious human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces, which included violations of the right to life; the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the rights to bodily integrity, security and liberty; and due process rights. These violations were compounded by members of the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary who knew of, participated in, or otherwise tolerated abuses against protesters and detainees, including serious violations of their due process rights.” (P. 1)

“In most of the cases we documented, security forces employed unlawful force, including shooting and severely beating unarmed individuals. Nearly all of the victims were also arrested and, while in detention, subjected to physical and psychological abuse. In at least 10 cases, the abuses clearly constituted torture.” (P. 2)

“However, in the 45 cases of human rights violations we documented, the evidence indicated that the victims of unlawful force and other abuses were not engaging in acts of violence or other criminal activity at the time they were targeted by Venezuelan security forces. On the contrary, eyewitness testimony, video footage, photographs and other evidence suggest victims were unarmed and nonviolent.” (P. 2)

“The nature and timing of many of these abuses—as well as the frequent use of political  epithets by the perpetrators—suggests that their aim was not to enforce the law or disperse protests, but rather to punish people for their political views or perceived views.” (P. 3)

“While it was not possible for Human Rights Watch’s investigation to determine the full scope of human rights violations committed in Venezuela in response to protests since February 12, our research leads us to conclude that the abuses were not isolated cases or excesses by rogue security force members, but rather part of a broader pattern, which senior officers and officials must or should have known about, and seem at a minimum to have tolerated.” (P. 3)

“President Maduro has blamed the opposition for most of the protest-related deaths. However, to date, the government has not made public evidence to support this claim. In fact, based on official reports and credible media accounts, there are strong reasons to believe that security forces and armed pro-government gangs have been responsible for some of the killings.” (P. 6)

Human Rights Watch found that Venezuelan security forces repeatedly resorted to force—including lethal force—in situations in which it was wholly unjustified. In a majority of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the use of force occurred in the context of protests that were peaceful, according to victims, eyewitnesses, lawyers, and journalists, who in many instances shared video footage and photographs corroborating their accounts.” (P. 9)

On the existence and role of pro-government armed groups (colectivos armados):

“Security forces repeatedly allowed armed pro-government gangs to attack protesters, journalists, students, or people they believed to be opponents of the government with security forces just meters away. In some cases, the security forces openly collaborated with the pro-government attackers.” (P. 12)

“Despite credible evidence of crimes carried out by these armed pro-government gangs, high-ranking officials called directly on groups to confront protesters through speeches, interviews, and tweets. President Maduro himself has on multiple occasions called on civilian groups loyal to the government to “extinguish the flame” of what he characterized as “fascist” protesters.” (P. 14)

On the experience of victims while in detention:

“In several cases, national guardsmen and police also subjected detainees to severe psychological abuse, threatening them with death and rape, and telling them they would be transferred to the country’s extremely violent prisons, even though they had yet to be charged with a crime.” (P. 16)

On violations against due process:

“The detainees were routinely held incommunicado for extended periods of time, usually up to 48 hours, and sometimes longer. While, in a few exceptional cases documented by Human Rights Watch, detainees were released before being brought before a judge, in the overwhelming majority of cases prosecutors charged them with several crimes, regardless of whether there was any evidence the accused had committed a crime.” (P. 19)

Virtually all detainees were not allowed to meet with their defense lawyers until minutes before their initial hearing before a judge. Lawyers and detainees alike told Human Rights Watch that these meetings usually occurred in the hallways outside of courtrooms, in front of police and court officials as well as other detainees (to whom they were sometimes handcuffed), denying their right to a private audience.” (P. 20)

Hearings were routinely and inexplicably held in the middle of the night, a practice that lawyers interviewed by Human Rights Watch had not experienced in other types of cases. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that, night after night, they were forced to wait for hours in courts, in military facilities, or in other where places hearings were held, without receiving any plausible justification for the delay.” (P. 21)

On the fear of victims to report the abuses:

“A lawyer from the Catholic University Andrés Bello, who coordinates the work of a team of criminal lawyers who have assisted hundreds of detainees in Caracas, told Human Rights Watch that ‘in almost no cases’ do victims have the confidence to file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office.[27] He added, ‘People don’t bring complaints because they don’t trust institutions. They fear who will protect them if they do.'[28]” (P. 23)

“Several victims expressed fear that reporting crimes could lead to the loss of employment for them or their family members who worked for the government. In several instances, these threats were made explicit.” (P. 24)

On the government’s ability to seriously deal with human rights violations:

“Another reason is that, in many of these cases, the investigative police, the Attorney General’s Office, and the judiciary are themselves implicated in serious due process violations, as well as in failing to intervene to address abuses by security forces against detainees. Consequently, any thorough investigation will require these institutions to investigate their own misconduct—which is likely to give rise to serious conflicts of interest and severely compromise the credibility of their findings.” (P. 26)

“It is also troubling that the government has repeatedly sought to blame its political opponents, or simply the opposition as a whole, for the violence without providing credible evidence.” (P. 27)

The rest of the report, from pages 34 to 103, contains a wealth of information, including lists of recommendations for the different parties involved, a thorough explanation of the methodology used during the research project, as well as detailed accounts from victims of human rights abuses.

Overall, the document draws a clear conclusion. Venezuelan security forces and pro-government armed groups, with the support (implicit or explicit) of the Venezuelan government, have engaged in a campaign of human rights abuses that has resulted in at least 10 indisputable cases of torture. These abuses have taken place as part of an attempt do quell civil unrest and crush political dissent.

10 thoughts on “Human Rights Watch Report: Punished for Protesting

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