Maduro government tightens repression despite visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The three-day visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to Venezuela was marked by a short-lived truce between government and opposition. While critics questioned whether the visit itself would serve to legitimate Maduro's government, civil society activists took the opportunity to mobilise in the streets of Caracas and to expose human rights violations taking place in the country. On 20th June 2019, Bachelet met with civil society organisations and heard first-hand accounts from victims and families. 

During the High Commissioner's visit, government authorities ostensibly scaled down on its repressive tactics. However, this moment of relative peace was immediately followed by a resurgence of repression. Immediately following the visit, on 26th June 2019, the alleged enforced disappearance of lawyer and activist Antonia Turbay emerged. On the 1st July 2019, police violence during a peaceful protest in Tachira state left teenager Rufo Chacón blind.

New cases of targeted internet blocks and censorship of journalists have also been reported in this period. However, in early June 2019 journalists were able to regain access to the opposition-controlled National Assembly, after being banned from the space by the Bolivarian National Guard for almost a month and a half.

Peaceful Assembly

On 19th June 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet was welcomed in Caracas with protests in various parts of the city. Throughout her three-day visit, several civil society actors mobilised to condemn the precarious social, economic and political conditions experienced in Venezuela, and to denounce the human rights violations carried out by Nicolas Maduro's government. On the 21st June 2019, a demonstration in front of the building of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sought to expose Bachelet to the numerous cases of human rights abuses in the country, appealing for help from the High Commissioner. Although there was police present during these protests, no incidents of violent repression were registered. Human rights NGO Provea stated that some demonstrators were told by paramilitary groups to delete photos and videos.

However, this represented a brief interval rather than an end of the repression of peaceful assembly in Venezuela. On 1st July 2019, only a few days after Bachelet's visit, the Bolivarian National Guard violently dispersed a peaceful protest by Venezuelans who demanded improvements to the deficient domestic gas service in Tariba, Tachira state. 16-year-old teenager Rufo Antonio Chacón Parada, who was at protest with his mother, became a victim of the police repression and lost both eyes because of the impact from pellets fired at close range by the police. According to CNN, local police admitted the excessive use of force during this protest.

Association

Venezuelan civil society leaders sought to meet with Michelle Bachelet and highlight the human rights violations that have taken place in the country. In a press conference, the president of human rights organisation Foro Penal, Alfredo Romero, made a series of requests to Bachelet in the context of her visit to Venezuela. Romero urged the UN High Commissioner to demand the immediate release of around 715 political prisoners, most of whom are being held in unsanitary conditions and without access to a fair trial. Romero also stated that Bachelet should be given access to the prisons where political prisoners are held, as to witness the torture rooms and inhumane conditions to which these prisoners are subjected. Finally, Foro Penal underscored that she should also be allowed to speak to the political prisoners and their families, in order to understand the suffering they have had to endure.

On 20th June 2019, Bachelet met with representatives of civil society organisations and victims of human rights abuses at the Universidad Metropolitana (Metropolitian University - Unimet). Over a 100 demonstrators waited outside for Bachelet's arrival, according to Prodavinci's article detailing the discussions. Accompanied by COFAVIC and other human rights organisations, victims and family members traveled from across the country to Caracas, to provide testimonies of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture practices. Bachelet also heard from 29 representatives of civil society organisations, who reported a pattern of violations ranging from the prevention of peaceful protests to censorship and digital rights restrictions. The CSOs also presented a broader panorama of the country's situation, including the food and medicine shortages, hunger and women's rights violations in Venezuela. Overall, Bachelet's meetings at Unimet are reported to have lasted for over 5 hours.

Although the visit marked a truce between the Maduro government and the opposition, the persecution of activists, politicians and critical journalists resurged only a few days later. On 26th June 2019, a new case believed to be an enforced disappearance emerged. As per neighbours' accounts, Antonia Turbay, a lawyer and opposition activist, was near her house when a van from the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service - SEBIN) arrived and took her. Turbay's whereabouts were unknown for four days, until 30th June 2019, when her arrest was confirmed as she was taken to court in Caracas. On the same day, CSO Foro Penal mobilised family and friends to protest in support of Turbay, demanding her release.

As mentioned previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, human rights defender Alexis Bustamante, from FundaREDES, disappeared on 17th May 2019. Although there is no official information on this whereabouts, FundaREDES and Foro Penal stated that he was detained by government authorities and is currently being held in Ramo Verde prison.

Expression

For over a month, journalists were banned from entering Venezuela's Federal Legislative Palace. Press unions and CSOs working on freedom of expression united to campaign against the arbitrary restriction. On the 4th June 2019, journalists managed to enter the building of the National Assembly after physically struggling with the Bolivarian National Guard - as seen in the video of the tweet above. They were assisted by some officials and opposition representatives, who acknowledged that the right to freedom of expression was violated by the ban. During the session that followed this struggle, the Secretary General of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Prensa de Venezuela (National Press Workers Union - SNTP) addressed members of the Assembly and said:

"Journalists, after being undermined for almost a month and a half by members of the Bolivarian National Guard-who have turned their backs on the Constitution and the law- return today to the Legislative Palace and have their right to work recognised. Today Venezuelan journalists re-enter the National Assembly, from where they should never have left."

Meanwhile, digital censorship continued to increase in Venezuela. Readers of the independent digital media outlet El Pitazo reported challenges in accessing the news website from 17th June 2019. Two days later, El Pitazo said that the National Telecommunications Commission of Venezuela (CONATEL) ordered telecommunications companies such as Movistar, Movilnet and Inter to block access to web content on the pages of El Pitazo and Efecto Cocuyo, two of the country's most popular independent digital news sites. The National Press Workers Union (SNTP) and other supporters used #ElPitazoResiste to report the blocking of access to some content, which has continued since then, and to express their solidarity on social networks.

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, strategic internet shutdowns and censorship have been a recurrent problem in Venezuela. Also on 17th June 2019, the state-run internet provider ABA CANTV blocked the access to web platforms including YouTube, Google services and Bing. This restriction coincided with the live streaming of a press conference held by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who denounced cases of corruption. At the end of the press conference, the service was restored. The following day, on 18th June 2019, access to Twitter and Instagram was restricted while a session of the opposition-controlled National Assembly was live streamed. In this session, members of parliament discussed allegations of embezzlement and the release of Gilber Caro, a political prisoner. Both cases were reported by NetBlocks, a digital rights organisation.

The CSO Ipys Venezuela released on 21st June 2019 an analysis about misinformation by pro-government news outlets, focusing on Telesur's coverage of the power outages experienced in Venezuela in March 2019. In Ipys' analysis, Telesur reported the outage as a cyber-attack by national and international right-wing groups, using a number of mechanisms to omit alternative narratives. For example, in this case Telesur used incomplete information and omitted key conclusions from sources, quoted information from official government channels without offering contrasting reports, and presented opinions supporting their thesis as verified facts.