Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Venezuela

Political context

2008 marked ten years since Mr. Hugo Chávez Frías took on the Presidency of the Republic of Venezuela. His Government has been characterised by the so-called "Bolivarian Revolution", with an announced willingness to promote the "21st century socialism", which was accompanied by a strong political polarisation in the country. In terms of economic, social and cultural rights, President Chávez undertook a programme of generalised nationalisations in various sectors, such as the oil industry and telecommunications, as well as various social programmes. According to the Office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Venezuela, regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), these massive social programmes (known as missions) that were implemented from 2003 "have led to considerable progress in achieving fair and widely based policies, including those sectors that were for years denied access to their social rights".1 However, the opposition kept on denouncing the undermining of civil and political rights, and criticising the Head of State for concentrating all power, manipulating State institutions and lacking pluralist policies. The opposition also continued to denounce that trade unions have lost their capacity of action due to the strict control they are submitted to.2 As for the Government, it continued to stigmatise the political opposition, particularly after the failed coup of April 2002.

Moreover, one of the State's greatest challenges remained the situation in the penitentiary system. Prisons are faced with problems of overcrowding and poor conditions for inmates, leading to violence within prisons. Indeed, in 2008, 422 inmates died from violence and another 854 were injured,3 particularly due to the weakness of security and the corruption of the guards, which allow armed gangs to control the prisons. Overcrowding and the deterioration of detention facilities were also causes for violence.

Defamation campaign against human rights organisations

The polarisation of the political scene had repercussions on the work of human rights defenders, who were accused by the Government of receiving funds from the United States and of only aiming at encouraging opposition to the ruling power. Accordingly, the Government orchestrated campaigns of harassment against organisations that it considered as the voices of the opposition. Indeed, in 2008, defamation campaigns continued, which were carried out by Government representatives through defamatory declarations on official media. Human rights organisations were often accused of being partial, of collaborating with the opposition parties and of having links with the United States, a country that is openly criticised by President Chávez. Thus, on February 28, 2008, accusations were posted on the website of the pro-Government organisation "People's Revolutionary Assembly of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" (Assamblea Popular Revolucionaria República Bolivariana de Venezuela) against the Committee of the Relatives of the Victims of the events that occurred between February 27 and early March 1989 (Comité de Familiares de Víctimas de los sucesos ocurridos entre el 27 de febrero y los primeros días de marzo de 1989 – COFAVIC) for taking advantage of the suffering of the poor to run its "business". Between 2002 and 2008, 42 articles were published that criticised COFAVIC and its Executive Director, Ms. Liliana Ortega.4 Moreover, on November 15, 2008, Ms. Eva Golinger, a renowned American-Venezuelan lawyer, declared during the International Conference "Revolution and Intervention in Latin America" (Revolución e Intervención en América Latina), which was broadcast by the television channel Telesur, that the NGO SINERGIA, an observatory on guarantees and the exercise of rights to participation to public life and association in Venezuela, was financed by US agencies and that it belonged to a subversive movement aiming at rejecting the constitutional reform agreed upon in 2007.5 Lastly, the Annual Report of the Venezuelan Programme of Education-Action in Human Rights (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos – PROVEA) on the situation of human rights in Venezuela, published on December 10, 2008, was subjected to strong criticisms from various important figures. Among others, on December 10, 2008, the Minister of People's Power for Health, Mr. Jesús Mantilla, declared that "the figures provided by this NGO are false (...), [PROVEA] does not represent the interests of an organisation supposedly fighting for human rights and freedom (...). It hasn't made any reports on human rights violations committed by the American army during the war in Iraq (...)" and, on December 16, 2008, the Minister of People's Power for Interior and Justice, Mr. Tarek El-Aissami, declared that: "in the eyes of the people, the PROVEA report is ridiculous (...); they deserve that shoes be sent at them for lying" [in reference to the incident in Iraq on December 14, 2008, when a journalist threw a shoe at President Bush].6

This hostile environment did not only affect activists working for organisations based in Venezuela, but also foreigners working for the international NGO Human Rights Watch. Thus, on September 18, 2008, Mr. José Miguel Vivanco, Director of the Americas division of this NGO, along with his Deputy, Mr. Daniel Wilkinson, were expelled from the country on the orders of the Minister of People's Power for Foreign Affairs, a day after they had presented the report A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela. This report denounced the lack of independence of the judiciary, the Government's intimidation of human rights defenders and NGOs, and the use of discriminatory measures to limit the right of expression, the right of association and the freedom for civil society to promote human rights in the country.

Harassment of defenders who address the Inter-American human rights system

2008 saw an increase in the harassment by the authorities of defenders who addressed the Inter-American human rights system, which was linked to an increase in the cases of human rights violations in Venezuela denounced before this system, in particular before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos – Co IDH) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).7 Accordingly, on various occasions, the authorities discredited the work of defenders who collaborated with these regional institutions. On April 23, 2008 for instance, Mr. Humberto Prado, Director of the Venezuelan Prison Obsevatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), was accused by a Member of Parliament from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV), President Chávez's party, of benefiting economically from the country's penitentiary situation and of receiving funds from the opposition party.8 These declarations coincided with the prison crisis in Venezuela, Mr. Prado's participation in audiences within the IACHR and the publication of reports on the prison situation. Moreover, on May 8 and 9, 2008, the State channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV) repeatedly broadcast spots in which Mr. Carlos Ayala Corao, former President of the IACHR and current President of the Andean Commission of Jurists (Comisión Andina de Juristas), of having been involved in the coup in 2002 and of being financed by the United States Government to direct a conspiracy against Venezuela. These accusations coincided with Mr. Ayala's participation as a representative of the victims in a case handled by the Co IDH regarding alleged attacks suffered by employees of the private television channel Globovisión.9

In addition to these acts of defamation, not only did the authorities not always respect their duty to protect human rights defenders, even when they were granted provisional measures of protection by the Co IDH, but in some cases, the implementation of these protection measures turned into a new form of repression against their beneficiaries. On December 12, 2008, Mr. Carlos Nieto Palma, Director of the NGO "A Window to Freedom" (Una Ventana a la Libertad), reported that he had been verbally attacked in his own residence by three metropolitan police officials charged with his protection. Mr. Nieto Palma was benefiting from provisional measures of protection granted by the Co IDH. He reproached the agents for not being present to protect him on some days. Officials from the same police body also falsified 52 minutes of interviews with him during the period he was under protection, in order to prove that they had provided him with adequate protection.10 Moreover, on September 29, 2008, the Control Tribunal 33 in Caracas rejected all complaints lodged following acts of harassment and threats against COFAVIC members, upon the orders of the Public Ministry,11 without even granting the victims the right to be heard, even though the latter had been given provisional measures of protection by the Co IDH.12

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 200813

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP)Judicial harassment / Acts of intimidation / Defamation campaignsUrgent Appeal VEN 001/0508/OBS 079May 15, 2008
Messrs. José Miguel Vivanco and Daniel WilkinsonExpulsion / HarassmentPress ReleaseSeptember 22, 2008

1 See Office of the UNDP in Venezuela, Situación de los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio en Venezuela, 2009, available on UNDP website (Unofficial translation).

2 To this extent, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) declared that "there was a progressive weakening of collective bargaining rights and the right to strike, which were arbitrarily denied based on political bias and other reasons. The criminalisation of strikes and demonstrations and the undermining of trade union autonomy through the interference of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral – CNE) in trade union elections are compounding these problems". See ITUC, Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, 2008.

3 See Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), Situación Sistema Penitenciario Venezolano, Informe 2008, January 2009.


5 Idem.



8 Mr. Humberto Prado was accused of "organising prison strikes", "benefiting economically from the inmates' problems", "being financed by the opposition" and "serving the interests of the United States".



11 Part of the Governments responsibility in implementing provisional measures is to investigate the events and sanction those responsible for the attacks against the beneficiaries of these measures.


13 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.


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