Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions increase in Venezuela during pandemic

Association

On 8th May 2020, civil society organisation Foro Penal reported that arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances increased in Venezuela since the beginning of COVID-19 containment measures in March 2020. From 1st January to 7th May 2020, the organisation registered 121 political detentions, raising the total number of political prisoners to 362. In 15 of the cases, the whereabouts of detainees remained unknown at the time of the report. The director of Foro Penal said in a press conference that the recent wave of arrests included people detained for sending messages about the coronavirus or for making complaints against public authorities, political detentions of people connected with opposition leader Juan Guaidó and detainees accused of involvement in conspiracies or military uprisings.

On 4th June 2020, Pemón human rights defender Lisa Lynn Henrito Percy denounced the criminalisation and vulnerable situation of Indigenous communities in Venezuela during the COVID-19 crisis. According to the defender, while Indigenous communities have been militarised and isolated because of suspected coronavirus infections, authorities have started lifting restrictions in non-Indigenous areas of the same municipalities. Badly implemented emergency policies, Lisa Percy said, have also spread panic and left people more vulnerable. For instance, following the death of an elder in San Antonio del Morichal, the Indigenous community was isolated, militarised and all members were made to take rapid COVID-19 tests which showed 80% of the population infected. However, results from these tests have been unreliable and the government has reportedly failed to provide information on what is being done with their results.

Peaceful Assembly

On 16th June 2020, civil society organisations denounced that Edgar Flores, a man who has symptoms associated with schizoid disorder, has been detained since 19th April 2020 for participating in a protest over fuel shortages in Churuguara, Falcón. In a statement, Confederación de Sordos de Venezuela (CONSORVEN), PROVEA and several other organisations expressed concern and stressed that under Venezuela’s Penal Code, people with “sufficient” mental illness are unimputable. Flores and two other protesters detained were released on 30th June 2020, after 73 days of detention.

Civil society organisation Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social (Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict - OVCS) registered 1,075 protests in May 2020, an average of 36 protests per day. These protests were mainly related to economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. OVCS also reported that security agents and armed government supporters repressed protests by residents of the states of Barinas, Bolívar, Lara, Mérida and Trujillo.

On 4th May 2020, an armed group inside a van fired shots at demonstrators protesting against electricity cuts in Libertador, Mérida. Rafael Hernández, a 21-year-old engineering student who was peacefully protesting, was shot and killed.

Expression

Freedom of expression organisation Espacio Público (Public Space) registered 112 violations of freedom of expression in May 2020. The main violations documented were intimidation, censorship and bureaucratic restrictions. Among the incidents of intimidation, Espacio Público highlighted the case of Luis López, a journalist with newspaper La Verdad de Vargas who was threatened and forced by the Bolivarian National Guard to delete material recorded during a protest led by medical doctors on 13th May 2020. In the first five months of 2020, the organisation recorded 556 violations of freedom of expression, including 79 arrests.

Espacio Público also reported that Venezuela’s state internet provider, Compañía Anónima Nacional Teléfonos de Venezuela (CANTV), blocked access to YouTube, Periscope and Twitter on 11th June 2020 during the transmission of a forum where opposition leaders were speaking. Users denounced the blockade on social networks shortly before it was confirmed by internet monitoring organisations Ve Sin Filtro and Netblocks.org. According to Ve Sin Filtro, tactical blockades are usually short and seek to silence a specific statement, news or event while it is broadcasting. The organisation said CANTV regularly conducts such blockades.

On 19th May 2020, telecom company AT&T announced a decision to close DirecTV operations in Venezuela because of a licensing requirement to broadcast channels Globovisión and PDVSA, which is currently prohibited by United States sanctions. The operator reportedly held almost 45 per cent of the paid television market in Venezuela, with over 2 million subscribers. Three days after the decision was announced, the country’s highest court ordered the seizure of the company's assets and on 5th June 2020, three DirecTV executives were arrested. They were formally accused of acting to destabilise the economy. Over 125,000 people signed a petition requesting AT&T to resume DirecTV services in Venezuela, arguing that the withdrawal leaves thousands without access to information.