Venezuela 2016/2017

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Venezuela 2016/2017

The government declared a state of emergency which was renewed four times. Most of those suspected of responsibility for crimes under international law and for human rights violations during the 2014 protests had yet to be brought to justice. Prison overcrowding and violence continued. Survivors of gender-based violence faced significant obstacles in accessing justice. Human rights defenders and journalists frequently faced campaigns to discredit them, as well as attacks and intimidation. Political opponents and critics of the government continued to face imprisonment. There were reports of excessive use of force by the police and security forces.

Background

On 15 January, President Maduro declared a state of general emergency and economic emergency which lasted the year. The declaration established provisions which could restrict the work of civil society and NGOs, including by allowing the authorities to audit signed agreements between national organizations and legal entities with companies or institutions based abroad.

The authorities failed to report on the results of the implementation of the National Human Rights Plan, which had been approved in 2015.

Most of the judgments and orders passed on Venezuela by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights had yet to be complied with by the end of the year.

Food and medicine shortages intensified dramatically, provoking protests throughout the country. In July, the executive announced a new mandatory temporary work regime under which employees in public and private companies could be transferred to state-run food production companies, which would amount to forced labour.

In October, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that several Special Rapporteurs had experienced difficulties in visiting the country because the government failed to grant them the relevant permits.

In November, Venezuela’s human rights record was examined for the second time under the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

There was concern that the temporary nature of the positions held by more than 60% of judges made them susceptible to political pressure. Contrary to international human rights standards, civilians were tried before military courts. Police forces refused to comply with release orders issued by courts.

The powers of the opposition-led National Assembly were severely limited by resolutions from the Supreme Court of Justice, which hindered the ability of MPs to represent Indigenous Peoples. The Court also annulled a parliamentary declaration on non-discrimination connected with sexual orientation and gender identity; and a declaration which called for compliance with the decisions issued by intergovernmental organizations.

Impunity

The country’s withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (in effect since 2013) continued to deny victims of human rights violations and their relatives access to justice, truth and reparation.

Although two officials were convicted in December of murdering Bassil Da Costa and Geraldine Moreno during the 2014 protests, progress was slow in bringing to justice those suspected of criminal responsibility for the killing of 41 other people – including security force personnel – as well as the torture and other ill-treatment of demonstrators during the protests. The suspects included members of the security forces. Information provided by the Attorney General during the UPR process revealed that nine officials had been convicted of various crimes and that 18 others were under investigation, even though 298 investigations had been initiated the previous year. However, the only official data published by the Public Prosecutor’s Office was about the conviction of one man for the 2014 murder of Adriana Urquiola in the city of Los Teques, Miranda State.

According to a report presented to Parliament by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in January, over 11,000 reports of crimes under international law and human rights violations were received in 2015, while only 77 trials were initiated during that year. No one had been brought to justice for the killings of eight members of the Barrios family or the threats and intimidation against other family members in Aragua State since 1998. Alcedo Mora Márquez, an employee of the Government Secretariat in Merida State and a community leader in the area, went missing in February 2015. Before his disappearance, he submitted reports on the misconduct of local public officials.

In March, 28 miners disappeared in Bolivar State; in October, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented a report revealing that it had found the miners’ corpses and determined who was responsible for their disappearance. Twelve people were charged with murder, robbery and “deprivation of liberty”.1

Excessive use of force

There were continued reports of excessive use of force by security forces, particularly in the repression of protests over the lack of food and medicine. In June, Jenny Ortiz Gómez died as a result of several gunshots to the head when police officers carried out public order operations. The suspected perpetrator was charged with intentional homicide and misuse of firearms.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, approximately 590 protests were registered each month during the year. The majority were related to demands for economic, social and cultural rights, in particular access to food, health and housing.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders continued to be targeted with attacks and intimidation by state media and high-ranking government officials.

In April, Humberto Prado Sifontes, director of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP), was once again the victim of threats and insults when his email and social media accounts were hacked following the publication of an interview where he reported on crisis and violence in the prison system.2

In May, Rigoberto Lobo Puentes, a member of the Human Rights Observatory of the University of The Andes, was shot in the head and back with a pellet gun by police officers in Merida State, when tending to injured victims during a protest. The officers continued to shoot at him after he got into his car.

In June, lawyers Raquel Sánchez and Oscar Alfredo Ríos, members of the NGO Venezuelan Penal Forum, were attacked by a group of hooded assailants who smashed the windscreen and side mirrors of their car when they were travelling through Tachira State. Raquel Sánchez was severely wounded when she was hit on the head as she got out of the car.3

Prison conditions

Prisons remained seriously overcrowded, and despite the announcement concerning new detention centres, prisoners’ living conditions – including their access to food and health – worsened. The presence of weapons held by prisoners remained a problem which the authorities failed to control. According to the OVP, the number of prisoners exceeded prison capacity by 190% in the first half of the year. Local NGOs also denounced the critical situation in pre-trial detention facilities.

In March, 57 people – including four inmates, a custodian and the prison director – were injured at the Fenix Penitentiary Centre in Lara State.

In August, seven people were killed and several others wounded by grenades during a riot at the Aragua Penitentiary Centre.

In October, several inmates were evicted from the General Penitentiary of Venezuela after weeks of confrontation with the Bolivarian National Guard, who allegedly used excessive force in the confrontation.

The Office of the Ombudsman announced a proposal to reduce overcrowding in pre-trial detention facilities. According to its annual report, presented to Parliament, 22,759 people remained in pre-trial detention in police facilities, resulting in overcrowding and the spread of diseases and violence.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Lawyer Marcelo Crovato remained under house arrest at the end of the year. He had been detained without trial in April 2014 for defending residents whose houses had been raided by the authorities during protests, and was placed under house arrest in 2015.

Decisions of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had yet to be complied with by the end of the year. They included decisions on the cases of Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma, two prominent government critics.

In June, Francisco Márquez and Gabriel San Miguel, two activists supporting the opposition party Popular Will, were arrested while on their way from the capital, Caracas, to Portuguesa State to help organize electoral activities. In August, Gabriel San Miguel was freed following action taken by the Spanish government, while Francisco Márquez was freed in October.

Emilio Baduel Cafarelli and Alexander Tirado Lara were transferred on three occasions to detention centres known as dangerous, prompting concern for their lives and physical integrity. They had been convicted of incitement, intimidation using explosives and conspiracy to commit a crime during the 2014 protests.

Opposition members Coromoto Rodríguez, Yon Goicoechea, Alejandro Puglia and José Vicente García were arrested in May, August, September and October respectively, under circumstances which amounted to arbitrary detention. Coromoto Rodríguez and Alejandro Puglia were released in October.

In September, Andrés Moreno Febres-Cordero, Marco Trejo, James Mathison and César Cuellar were arrested and – despite being civilians – were brought before a military court for participating in the production of a video for the political party Justice First which had criticized the government.4 Marco Trejo and Andrés Moreno Febres-Cordero were released in November.

Prisoners of conscience

Political opponents of the government continued to face imprisonment. In July, an appeals court dismissed prisoner of conscience Leopoldo López’s appeal against his prison sentence, without taking into account the absence of credible evidence to support the charges and public statements made before his conviction by the authorities, thus seriously undermining his right to a fair trial. He had been sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison.

According to the Venezuelan Criminal Forum, more than 100 people remained in detention due to political reasons.

In November, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activist and prisoner of conscience Rosmit Mantilla was released from jail. He had been imprisoned since 2014. The circumstances and conditions of his release remained unclear by the end of the year.

Police and security forces

Recent official data on homicides remained unavailable. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory reported that the country had the second highest homicide rate in the Americas.

In January, the Public Prosecutor’s Office reported that investigations had been initiated into 245 deaths which occurred in alleged armed clashes with officials during the government’s Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), which had been implemented by security forces in July 2015 to tackle the high crime rate. The high number of civilian casualties suggested that security forces may have used excessive force or carried out extrajudicial executions.

On 15 October, 12 young people were arbitrarily detained in the region of Barlovento, in the state of Miranda, during an OLP security operation. On 28 November their bodies were found in two mass graves. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, 18 members of the armed forces were detained for their presumed participation in the massacre.

The UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns over reports of abuses by military forces against Indigenous Peoples settled in la Guajira, Zulia State, on the border with Colombia.

Freedom of expression

The authorities continued to single out media outlets and journalists critical of the government.

In March, David Natera Febres, director of the regional newspaper The Caroní Post, was sentenced to four years in prison and fined for publishing reports on corruption. The sentence had yet to be implemented by the end of the year.

In June, 17 journalists and media workers who were covering protests in Caracas over the lack of food were attacked and their equipment stolen. The case was reported to the Public Prosecutor’s Office to no avail.

Violence against women and girls

Implementation of the 2007 legislation criminalizing gender-based violence remained slow due to a lack of resources; by the end of the year there were still no shelters available to victims seeking refuge.

Statistics from the Public Prosecutor’s Office indicated that 121,168 complaints of gender-based violence were received in 2015. Criminal proceedings were initiated in 19,816 cases and civil protection measures such as restraining orders were granted in less than 50% of cases. According to women’s rights organizations, 96% of the cases that did reach the courts did not result in convictions.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

In May, the National Assembly approved the declaration of 17 May as the “Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia”.

In August, the Ministry of Interior and Justice and the Public Prosecutor’s Office agreed that transgender people could freely express their gender identity on the photograph on their identification documents. However, there were no advances in legislation to guarantee equal rights, including to provide for the possibility for an individual to adjust their name, gender and other details in official documentation to correspond to their gender identity, or to criminalize hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Access to contraceptives, including emergency contraception, was increasingly limited due to shortages of medicine. Abortion continued to be criminalized in all cases except when the life of the woman or girl was at risk.

According to a report by the UN Population Fund, the maternal mortality rate in the country was 95 per 100,000 live births, significantly higher than the regional average of 68 deaths per 100,000 live births. Contraceptive usage stood at 70% for traditional methods and 64% for modern methods, with regional averages at 73% and 67% respectively.

Indigenous Peoples’ rights

The legal provisions to guarantee and regulate consultation with Indigenous Peoples over matters affecting their livelihoods were not complied with. There were reports of criminalization of Indigenous and environmental rights defenders. Concern was raised over the impact on Indigenous land and environment of large-scale mining projects in the southern region of Venezuela known as the Mining Arc. Approval for the implementation of the projects was granted without consulting with and seeking the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities in the area.

Right to health – lack of food and medicine

The economic and social crisis in the country continued to worsen. In light of the lack of official statistics, private and independent agencies such as the Workers’ Centre for Documentation and Analysis (CENDA) reported an inflation of 552% for food products from November 2015 to October 2016, which made it extremely difficult for the population to purchase food even when they were able to find it. According to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, 12.1% of the population ate only twice a day or less. The Bengoa Foundation for Food and Nutrition estimated that 25% of children were malnourished.

Studies on living conditions carried out by three major universities revealed that 73% of homes in the country suffered from income poverty in 2015, while official data from the National Institute of Statistics put that figure at 33.1%.

The government’s refusal to allow international aid efforts to address the humanitarian crisis and provide medicine exacerbated the critical health situation. The poor state of public health services led to an increase in preventable and treatable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. NGOs such as the Coalition of Organizations for the Right to Life and Health and professional associations calculated that there was a shortage of 75% of high-cost drugs and 90% of essential drugs.

  1. Venezuela: Establish the whereabouts of missing miners (AMR 53/3602/2016)
  2. Venezuela: Human rights defender threatened: Humberto Prado Sifontes (AMR 53/3952/2016)
  3. Venezuela: Human rights defenders assaulted (AMR 53/4223/2016)
  4. Venezuela: Arrested and prosecuted by military tribunal (AMR 53/5029/2016)

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