Sociopolitical crisis triggers attacks against HRDs
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concerns regarding an increase of harassment against human rights defenders (HRDs) in Venezuela since 11th March 2019. Since March, local CSOs have documented an increase in defamatory messages from government authorities against activists. In fact, in the last few weeks at least five people were arrested without a court order after previously being identified on television for their work.
Reports of torture inside Venezuelan prisons is another matter of grave concern highlighted by the IACHR. According to the CSO, Foro Penal, the government is currently holding 785 political prisoners as of 15th April 2019 with 95 members of the military and 690 civilians currently held in detention.
#15Abril Son 785 #presospolíticos en #Venezuela según lista actualizada del @ForoPenal enviada a @Almagro_OEA2015 y @UNHumanRights para verificación y certificación. Desde la pasada lista del 8/4/19 de 911 personas, fueron excarceladas 167 personas y 41 nuevos presos políticos pic.twitter.com/LFg3Clbedz— Alfredo Romero (@alfredoromero) April 15, 2019
On 21st March 2019 officers of the National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) detained Roberto Marrero, opposition leader and interim President Juan Guaidó’s chief of office. Marrero was arrested on suspicion of treason and conspiracy. His arrest took place soon after Juan Guaidó and his delegation (including Marrero) returned from an international tour of countries which recognised him as Interim President of Venezuela. After the first hearing on 27th March 2019, a judge ordered Marrero to remain in prison. Days after Marrero's arrest, on 3rd April 2019, the National Constituent Assembly ordered the removal of Juan Guaidó’s parliamentary immunity and ordered the Supreme Court to prosecute him. The decision was based on Guaidó’s violation of a travel restriction imposed on him in February 2019. Several foreign governments expressed their solidarity with Guaidó and rejected the illegitimate National Constituent Assembly's decisions.
Due to the lack of energy and water in the country, Juan Guaidó, the president of the country's opposition-controlled National Assembly called upon citizens to protest against the government of Nicolás Maduro. On 30th March 2019, a protest in Caracas was repressed using tear gas as well as government orchestrated counter-protests and threats claiming that “those who protest will be treated like traitors”.
The “colectivos chavistas” (a pro-government paramilitary) also repressed peaceful demonstrations using live ammunition fired directly to demonstrators. A recent analysis published by the local CSO Provea shows that the “colectivos” have been protected and promoted by the ruling party for several years, especially through legal developments that enable their operation and messages that create the sense of an “internal enemy” that needs to be neutralised. In a statement, the organisation explained:
"Maduro and his leadership have promoted, organised, financed and armed paramilitary groups. In the same way they have trained confidants known as 'toads' by the population to report on the activities of neighbours or coworkers who are openly oppose or support dissent. These 'toads' called cooperating patriots have been used as anonymous witnesses in judicial proceedings."
The use of live ammunition against protesters has dire consequences. People have been killed and injured in these acts of excessive and lethal force against peaceful protests. In two recent examples, an elderly woman was killed in the middle of the protest in Zulia state, in the west of the country, while protester was wounded in the Avenida Fuerzas Armadas de Caracas. Below is footage of the “colectivos” using ammunition against protesters in Caracas.
Colectivos atacan a manifestantes en CCS pic.twitter.com/Q5tM09mBuD— Kelvis larez (@Raptor_01) March 31, 2019
The leaders of Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) have also taken advantage of the lack of water and energy to dissuade potential demonstrations against Maduro. This was used by the Mayor in the municipality of Carrizal, Farith Fraija. The Mayor threatened people who went out to demonstrate against Maduro’s measures, by stating they would have no water cisterns in their communities if they went out to protest.
From 14th to 17th March 2019, journalists were unable to cover United Nation's (UN) mission in the state of Lara. State officials and armed civilian groups harassed 25 journalists from regional and state media, who were trying to report on UN members visiting different parts of Barquisimeto. One of the cases took place when the “colectivos” intimidated a group of journalists covering the visit of the Regional Health Director to the Hospital Antonio Maria Pineda and forced them to leave. In another part of Barquisimeto, Alí Primera de la Gran Misión Vivienda, an armed civilian groups threatened journalists with theft of their cell phones and equipment or even burning them if they did not erase the material showing part of the demonstration where people from the neighbourhood protested against a lack of water. On 17th March 2019, an armed civilian group encircled the premises of the newspaper El Informador and knocked on windows and doors. The militia waited outside the outlets offices all day to coerce and intimidate the outlet's staff.
Internet connectivity was also reduced by 50% after the blackouts in the country. The blackouts were imposed after 4th March 2019, when Guaidó returned from his international tour, in an attempt to suppress coverage of supporters turning out to greet him. Consequently, most Venezuelans were unable to follow his homecoming. The internet blackouts not only affected banking transactions, telephone calls, commercial sites, but citizens were denied access to or dissemination of information. According to ‘VE sin filtro’, an Internet site reporting on internet restrictions, the transmission of Antena 3 Internacional was blocked, so was Youtube along with many other social media networks and news sites.
On 11th March 2019 the journalist and activist Luis Carlos Díaz was arrested. His arrest is attributed to his activism reporting on Venezuela's political crisis on his different social media accounts. Díaz whereabouts was unknown until around 02:30 a.m. in the morning of 12th March 2019, when state security agents brought Díaz to his apartment to Caracas in handcuffs. The community supporting Díaz started an online campaign and demonstrations that pressured the government of Maduro to release him late on 12th March 2019. Díaz soon became another example of the threats that independent and critic journalists face in Venezuela. Between January and February 2019, at least 49 media workers were arrested in Venezuela.