Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Venezuela

Political context

In 2007, President Hugo Chávez, who has been in power since 1999, continued his reforms for a "21st century socialism" after being re-elected in December 2006. Although the reforms succeeded in reducing poverty, democracy remains fragile, owing to the existing political and social tensions. In reality, President Chávez mainly sought to reinforce his authority. As soon as he was re-elected, he asked the National Assembly to grant him the right to legislate through the Ley habilitante, by which he can issue decrees that have force of law. On February 1, 2007, the law was published in the official bulletin, granting the President the right to legislate for 18 months. The law has nevertheless made some advances possible, and enabled the President to present his plan for the re-nationalisation of certain enterprises responsible for telecommunications, water management and energy.

President Chávez also proposed 69 constitutional amendments that inter alia gave him unlimited authority to declare a state of emergency without the prior approval of the Supreme Court of Justice, and to suspend certain constitutional guarantees such as the right to a fair trial or access to information in a state of emergency. One amendment allowed the President to be re-elected several times. On the other hand, some amendments represented social progress: the working day was limited to six hours, the right to citizenship and the multi-ethnic origin of Venezuela were recognised, State financing of electoral campaigns was regulated, etc. These amendments were rejected by 51% of the population in a national referendum held on December 2, 2007.

Some of the corrupt police forces are controlled by the Government, others by the opposition, and they confront each other, which often leads to exactions committed against the population, with extrajudicial executions, while conditions of detention in the prisons are very unsatisfactory. According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones), in 2007 498 inmates died a violent death, and 1,023 were injured.1 This is due in particular to the lack of security and the corruption of the prison wardens, who allow armed gangs to control the prisons. The origin of the violence is also to be found in the overcrowding and the deterioration of the penitentiary infrastructure.

In 2007, a vigorous debate took place on freedom of expression, on the occasion of the non-renewal of the broadcasting licence of the private audiovisual group Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), one of the oldest and largest in Venezuela, which expired on May 27, 2007. President Chávez reproached in particular RCTV for supporting the 2002 coup. The station now broadcasts over the cable network. In this regard, the IACHR and the European Parliament voiced concerns for freedom of expression.2

Smear campaigns against defenders

In 2007, certain NGOs were criticised in public and attacked by members of the Government and persons close to it, accusing them inter alia of "betraying the nation" for having accepted international cooperation funds, in particular from the United States. On May 4, 2007, Messrs. Carlos Correa and Rafael Chavero, Coordinators of the Public Space Association (Espacio Público), were accused in the pro-Government newspaper Papeles de Mandinga of "betraying the nation" and of being "scum", following the presentation of their report on the situation of freedom of expression in Venezuela in 2006. They were in particular reproached for being financed by the United States.3

In that respect, while regretting not having been able to visit Venezuela owing to lack of cooperation on the part of the State, IACHR deplored especially "the increasing number of threats and attempts on the life and physical well-being of human rights defenders" and "the other obstacles human rights defenders face, such as public discrediting by officials of the State [...] and the difficulty they have when attempting to get access to information".4

Acts of reprisal against defenders denouncing exactions committed by law enforcement officers

In 2007, defenders denouncing exactions committed by law enforcement officers, primarily the police, were subjected to various acts of intimidation and harassment. On November 3, 2007 Mr. Benjamín García, legal representative of the "Guardians of Justice" Committee (Comité "Guardianes de la Justicia"), and his son were assaulted by a policeman belonging to the municipal police in Sucre. The aggression would appear to be linked to a complaint lodged by the Guardians of Justice Committee against two municipal police officers. Likewise, Mr. Alcides Rafael Magallanes, Coordinator of the Anzoátegui Human Rights Foundation (F undación de los Derechos Humanos de Anzoátegui), received a death threat on February 27, 2007 from a policeman in Bolívar, after having denounced extrajudicial executions committed by the police in the State of Anzoátegui.5

Defenders fighting corruption, victims of acts of harassment and attacks on their physical integrity

Defenders fighting corruption are also subjected to acts of harassment and attacks on their physical integrity. For instance, on February 10, 2007, Mr. José Luis Urbano, President of the Civil Association for the Defence of the Right to Education (Asociación Civil Pro Defensa del Derecho a la Educación), was fired on and wounded in Barcelona, in the State of Anzoátegui, after having criticised publicly irregularities in the educational system and the quality of education given to deprived children in his State, and denounced cases of alleged corruption. A short time before, Mr. Urbano had received death threats.6 As for Mr. Miguel Salazar, Director of the political weekly Las Verdades de Miguel, his trial for "aggravated defamation" opened on April 18, 2007 in Caracas, for having published at the end of 2003 a column on cases of corruption and human rights violations in the State of Guárico (Centre). Under the Criminal Code, Mr. Miguel Salazar could receive a two to four years' prison sentence and a fine of up to 320,000 dollars.7

Obstacles to the freedom of assembly and repression of demonstrations

In 2007, the authorities continued to repress, prohibit or disrupt popular demonstrations, in particular those relating to protests against the non-renewal of the RCTV broadcasting licence, trade union claims and the right to public services. On August 27, 2007, the police dispersed with force the inhabitants who were demonstrating in front of the Maripa police station for the release of 12 minors under arrest, injuring eight persons with lead bullets. Likewise, on March 13, 2007 a students' demonstration protesting in Caracas against the non-renewal of the RCTV licence was violently repressed by the police, who fired lead bullets on the crowd and used tear gas. Lastly, on June 26, 2007, a group of workers who were trying by peaceful means to take over the installations of the "Pío Tamayo" sugar company in order to obtain better working conditions, were repressed by the Irribarren municipal police, injuring six persons with lead bullets and tear gas, and arresting 13 persons.8

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 See Venezuelan Prison Observatory, Situación carcelaria en Venezuela, Informe 2007, January 2008.

2 The European Parliament (See Resolution P6_TA (2007) 0216 adopted on May 24, 2007), the Presidency of the European Union (See Declaration on May 28, 2007) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (See Press Release n° 29/07, May 25, 2007), expressed concern about the freedom of expression in Venezuela.

3 See Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Programme (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos – PROVEA), Informe annual, octubre 2006 – septiembre 2007, Situación de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, December 2007.

4 See IACHR Report for 2007, Chapter IV.

5 See PROVEA, Electronic Bulletin n° 182, February 24 – March 5, 2007.

6 See PROVEA, Electronic Bulletin n° 181, January 19 – February 18, 2007.

7 See PROVEA, Electronic Bulletin n° 184, April 1-22, 2007.

8 See PROVEA, Informe annual, octubre 2006 – septiembre 2007, Situación de los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela, December 2007.


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