Human rights defenders and community activists were threatened and harassed. Reports of ill- treatment and torture by the police and army were frequent. Prison conditions often amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Dozens of people were killed by the security forces in circumstances suggesting excessive use of force or extrajudicial execution. An asylum-seeker was extradited to Peru.

The deep economic crisis and rumours of a possible coup seemed to threaten stability for several months prior to the December presidential election. The election, which passed off peacefully, was won by Hugo Chávez Frías who, as an army colonel, led a failed coup attempt in 1992.

The new penal code was approved in January and was due to be fully introduced in July 1999. Among other reforms, it established clear regulations concerning the use of force at the time of arrest. However, local human rights organizations expressed concern that despite some reform of the Code of Military Justice, the President continued to enjoy considerable powers to intervene in the military justice system, retaining the legal power to decide not to open proceedings or to close those already in progress when he or she "considers it to be in the national interest".

A number of constitutional guarantees, including the right not to be arrested without a warrant, continued to be suspended in areas bordering Colombia. The military authorities in these areas continued to be allowed to hold people for up to 20 days in preventive detention.

Following the annulment at the end of 1997 of the Ley de Vagos y Maleantes, Law of Vagrants and Crooks, which permitted administrative detention by the police without judicial review, over 500 detainees were released and there were no reports of continued detention under the law. However, thousands of arbitrary detentions were reported, apparently in attempts at social cleansing targeted at the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.

Human rights defenders were increasingly subjected to death threats, defamation and intimidatory surveillance. Following the alleged extrajudicial execution in June of three criminal suspects by the Policía Técnica Judicial, Crim-inal Investigation Police, in Maracaibo, Zulia state, three members of the non-governmental human rights organization Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz, Support Network for Justice and Peace, were followed and received several anonymous death threats. The following month, Sergio Salvador, a volunteer with the network, was approached by two strangers outside the organization's offices who warned him to stop working on the case or he would be killed; a third man in a nearby car pointed a gun at him.

In October Juan Bautista Moreno of the Comité para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, based in Guasdualito, near the Colombian border, was threatened with "disappearance" by the commander of military operations in the area. Juan Bautista Moreno had been arbitrarily detained in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997). Wilfredo Alvarado Baldaggio, a community activist, was threatened by members of the Guardia Nacional, National Guard, to make him withdraw his allegation that they had tortured him in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

Torture and ill-treatment by the police and army continued to be frequently reported. Methods included beatings, use of electric shocks and mock executions. Victims included Roberto Cabrera Márquez, a Jehovah's Witness and conscientious objector, who was allegedly beaten in the air force base in Maracay by soldiers who then placed him in a cupboard and let off tear-gas grenades.

Hundreds of detainees complained of ill-treatment by prison warders and Ministry of Justice employees. In March more than 100 relatives of detainees in Los Llanos prison, Portuguesa state, carried out a four-day protest inside the prison in support of their demand for the removal of the local head of the Guardia Nacional accused of responsibility for the ill-treatment of prisoners.

Prison conditions continued to amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. During the year, the Ministry of Justice implemented a number of measures, such as the creation of a new Cuerpo de Seguridad Penitenciaria, Prison Security Force, and the redistribution of prisoners according to their legal status. Despite these measures, which could lead to improvements in the future, violence in prisons remained endemic. According to reports, more than 300 prisoners and detainees were killed and over 1,000 wounded, the overwhelming majority by other prisoners. Acute overcrowding and the failure of the authorities to ensure the security of those in their custody were contributing factors to the problem. Poor standards of food provoked at least one hunger strike by prisoners and sanitary conditions continued to be inadequate.

Dozens of people were killed by the security forces in circumstances suggesting excessive use of force or, in some cases, extrajudicial execution. According to reports, in July in the municipality of Sucre, Miranda state, municipal police shot dead Freddy Díaz after chasing his 14-year-old cousin, Ali Eduardo Sojo, into the family home. The family and witnesses to the shooting were threatened by the police to discourage them from pursuing the case.

The judicial system failed to bring to justice those responsible for the massacre of 14 fishermen in El Amparo in 1988 (see previous Amnesty International Reports). In October the Supreme Court upheld the previous decision of the ad hoc military tribunal which absolved 15 soldiers accused of involvement in the massacre of all charges. The ruling did not include four other soldiers who were also implicated; they remained at large at the end of the year.

In July asylum-seeker Cecilia Rosana Núñez Chipana, a Peruvian citizen and alleged member of the Partido Comunista del Perú (Sendero Luminoso), Communist Party of Peru (Shining Path), was extradited to Peru where it was feared she could be at risk of torture, despite a request by the UN Committee against Torture that the extradition procedures be suspended until it had had an opportunity to reach a decision. There were a number of irregularities in the proceedings, including the hampering of the work of the defence counsel, which put into question the independence of the judiciary. The Foreign Relations Ministry informed the Committee that Cecilia Rosana Núñez Chipana had already been extradited three days before she actually was, suggesting that a political agreement had been reached prior to the legal ruling. In November the Committee ruled that Venezuela had failed to meet its obligation not to proceed with the extradition and had therefore breached the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Amnesty International continued to call on the authorities to take all necessary measures to guarantee the safety of human rights defenders, to end the intimidation of victims' relatives and witnesses of human rights violations and to curb the excessive use of force by the security forces. Amnesty International also urged the government to respect the recommendations of the UN Committee against Torture in the case of Cecilia Rosana Núñez Chipana.

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