Crisis escalates in Venezuela as human rights violations increase
The political crisis continues to worsen in Venezuela. After months of anti-government demonstrations, President Nicolás Maduro announced the creation of a Constituent Assembly that will draft a new constitution. Many, including local human rights organisations and opposition political parties, criticised the initiative since the Constitution “only allows the Venezuelan people to decide if they want to convoke a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution." Concerns were also raised regarding the “broad powers granted to the Constituent Assembly”.
In response, the Parliament enacted the "agreement to rescue democracy and the constitution" and called for a consultation vote regarding President Maduro's initiative. It was reported that 7.5 millions Venezuelans participated on 16th July 2017 in the consultation rejecting the plan to rewrite the Constitution and to call for elections.
The Constituent Assembly election of candidates took place on 30th July 2017 with reports regarding the brutal repression of protests, as explained below. Although the Electoral Council claimed that more than 8 million people participated, human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch called the process a "sham" as "the official results have been widely derided as implausible" with no access to independent observers or the media.
As earlier reported on the Monitor, mass protests began in Venezuela in April 2017. Though security forces and pro-government groups continue to repress protesters, many continue to take to the streets. The organisation Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social continues to document the number of protests happening around the country. Its latest report stated that 4,182 protests took place from 1st April to 9th July 2017 and that 157 people were killed during these protests as of 31st July 2017.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions continue during protests. Local organisation Foro Penal Venezolano reported that between 1st April and 31st July 2017, there have been 5,051 arrests in the context of protests, with 1,383 people still in detention. The use of military courts to prosecute civilians also continues. According to Foro Penal Venezolano, 527 civilians are currently being tried in a military court, a number that is double that reported in the CIVICUS Monitor in May 2017.
People from all sections of society have been the subject of repression. For example, it was reported that on 13th July 2017, a man with Asperger's syndrome was “brutally beaten” by security forces. Even though the prosecutor's office started an investigation after the incident, the attorney general issued a statement claiming no prosecution was initiated against the police officers involved.
In a separate incident, musician Wuilly Arteaga was arrested and reportedly beaten by security forces. Arteaga became a symbol of the peaceful protesters when he played Venezuela's national anthem on his violin while security forces threw tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protestors. Lawyer Alfredo Romero said that during his detention:
"They burned his hair with a lighter, beat him very hard meaning that he can't hear through his right ear."
The scale of repression during the protests has also been documented by Human Rights Watch. A multimedia report shows how "security forces have shot demonstrators at point blank range, run over demonstrators with an armored vehicle, brutally beaten people who offered no resistance, arbitrarily arrested hundreds of demonstrators, bystanders, and critics and prosecuted them in military courts, and broken into homes".
Although the government banned protests ahead of the Constituent Assembly elections, protests and demonstrations took placed across approximately 92% of the country. In response, repression increased with reports of 96 people being arrested and, according to the Office of the Prosecutor, 10 people lost their lives. Civil society organisations however documented that 16 people were killed.
Amnesty International issued a statement criticising the ban on protests as it "will do nothing but worsen an already incredibly volatile situation". In addition, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression remarked that:
"General prohibitions on the exercise of the right of persons to participate in peaceful protests are inherently disproportionate and excessive, and cannot serve as a basis for monitoring, arresting, and submitting civil or military criminal proceedings to demonstrators or social leaders for the sole reason of expressing their opinions on a governmental policy or measure."
In the midst of the protests, journalists have been attacked and harassed. During the national strike that took place on 20th July, national organisation Espacio Publico reported 20 cases of freedom of expression violations. Days prior to the election, journalists were subject to arbitrary detention and attacks. For example, at least three journalists were hit by tear gas canisters and the military confiscated the equipment of the media outlet La Prensa.
In addition, at least two journalists were charged with "military rebellion". Following their detention on 26th July 2017 and on 10th July 2017, a military court ordered journalist Carlos Julio Rojas to be transferred to Ramo Verde military prison and charged him with treason.
Ahead of the opposition consultation process, regulatory body CONATEL ordered the media not to call the referendum proposed by the opposition a "popular consultation". The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that CONATEL also "informed radio broadcasters that their licenses could be revoked if they appeared to promote or encourage participation". The Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa - SNTP rejected the decision of CONATEL as an imposition of prior censorship, which is unconstitutional.
Restrictions also occurred during the Constituent Assembly election. Espacio Publico documented 24 violations of freedom of expression. Furthermore, journalists were prevented from covering the process. According to the organisation Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, the National Electoral Council denied credentials to at least nine media outlets. In addition, Argentinian journalist Jorge Lana was detained in the airport and banned from entering the country.
On 13th July 2017, activist Carlos Graffe was arbitrarily detained in the city of Valencia. It was reported that the activist was charged in a military court with "stealing materials that belong to the Armed Forces” and “instigating rebellion”. After the hearing, he was transferred to the Ramo Verde military prison in Caracas.
A group of local CSOs issued a statement after the detention, rejecting “the persecution against activists and human rights defenders that are documenting the serious national crisis”. The organisations stated that Graffe's detention was arbitrary and performed without a judicial warrant. Furthermore, they claimed the hearing was unconstitutional as it took place in a military court.
On 14th July 2017, pro-government organisation Fundación Latinoamericana por los Derechos Humanos y el Desarrollo Social (Fundalatin) issued a statement condemning the use of “psychological violence” by the local organisation PROVEA against public officials that wished to participate in the Constituent Assembly election. Afterwards, the Secretary of the National Council of the Bolivarian Police, Pablo Fernandez, indicated that they would file a lawsuit against PROVEA for threatening officials.
This statement came after PROVEA started a social media campaign calling on state employees to refrain from participating in an illegal and illegitimate process as they could face sanctions according to the Constitution.
Leaders of the political opposition have also been subjected to harassment and detention. After the National Constituent Assembly elections, opposition leaders Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo Lopez, who were under house arrest, were taken back to prison by Bolivarian National Intelligence Services in the middle of the night. The Supreme Court issued a statement staying that Ledezma and Lopez “violated their house arrest conditions” as Ledezma could not “made any declarations in the media” and Lopez was forbidden from doing any “political proselytism”.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein expressed deep concern as "opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma have again been taken into custody by Venezuelan authorities after their house arrest was revoked". The IACHR also issued a statement condemning the new imprisonment as "not only a serious setback to their rights, but also an act that aggravates the political crisis in Venezuela, because the Venezuelan government is returning to repressive measures and political intolerance that seek to stifle freedom of expression and dissident voices".