The Venezuelan government has systematically used brutal forces, including torture against critical protester of the government and political opponents, Human Rights Watch and the Venezuelan organization Penal Forum said in a report released today.
The 73-page report, “Attack against opponents: Brutality, torture and political persecution in Venezuela,” documents 88 cases of at least 314 people, many of whom described having suffered serious human rights violations in Caracas and 13 states, between April and September 2017. Members of the security forces violently beat detainees and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault and other brutal techniques. They also used excessive force against people in the streets, and arbitrarily detained and prosecuted government opponents. Although it was not the first attack against critics of the government of Nicolás Maduro, the magnitude and seriousness of the repression in 2017 reached unprecedented levels in recent Venezuelan history.
“The perverse and widespread abuses against government opponents in Venezuela, including cases of aberrant torture, and the total impunity of the aggressors suggest governmental responsibility at the highest levels,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch. “It is not about isolated or occasional abuses by unruly agents, but rather a systematic practice of the Venezuelan security forces.”
The report is based on interviews with more than 120 people, including victims and their families, lawyers affiliated with the Penal Forum who assisted pro-bono victims in court hearings and medical professionals who treated people injured during protests or in places close to them. We also evaluated the available evidence that corroborated the testimonies, including photographs, video recordings, medical reports and judicial sentences, and consulted official reports and statements.
In some cases, members of the security forces detonated tear gas cartridges in enclosed spaces where people were detained; harassed detainees in small confinement cells for prolonged periods and denied them access to food or water; or forced them to ingest food deliberately contaminated with excrement, cigarette ashes or insects.
In several cases, detainees were victims of physical and psychological abuses, with the presumed intention of punishing or coercing them to incriminate or commit others, including opposition leaders. The type of abuse and the time when many of them occurred – as well as the frequent expression of political epithets by the aggressors – suggest that the purpose was not to guarantee the application of the law or to disperse the protests, but rather to punish people for their alleged political opinions, said Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum.
“He is nothing more than a political leader; he is nothing more than a public figure. He is a citizen on foot; it was me,” said Ernesto Martin (pseudonym), 34, who was arrested at his home for publicly criticizing the government and then tortured to incriminate himself and confess that he had alleged links with the political opposition.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum did not get any indication that public officials in key positions – including those who knew or should have known about the abuses – have taken measures to prevent and punish them. On the contrary, they have often reduced the seriousness of the abuses or denied indiscriminately, and with total improbability, what happened.
In April, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Venezuela, in response to a move by Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice – which is completely subservient to the presidency – to usurp the powers of the National Assembly with an opposition majority. The protests multiplied rapidly throughout the country and continued for months, fueled by widespread discontent with the authoritarian practices of President Maduro and the humanitarian crisis that has devastated the country during his rule.
Street abuse has slowed since July only because there are fewer protests, but the government has not signaled that it intends to renounce the brutal repression of opponents, neither demand officials to confess for the widespread abuses that there were committed. Impunity has been the rule.
The Venezuelan government has characterized the protests throughout the country as violent. There were some episodes in which certain protesters used violence, for example, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the security forces. However, the documented violent abuses were not part of an attempt to suppress violent demonstrations. On the contrary, these atrocities were inflicted on people who were already in the custody or control of the security forces, or they constituted acts of disproportionate violence or deliberate abuse against people in protests, on the streets or even in their own homes.
Members of the security forces and armed gangs in favor of the government, called “colectivos” in Venezuela, have caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of wounded. In many cases, they have fired water cannons, tear gas and shot at close range, in such a way that they seem to have been intended to cause painful injuries.
“Since April, the authorities have arrested at least 5,400 people,” said Alfredo Romero, executive director of the Penal Forum. “Some detainees were released without having been brought before a judge, but others were subject to arbitrary penal proceedings without the most basic guarantees of due process.”
At least 757 civilians were judged in military courts for crimes that included treason against the fatherland and military rebellion, in violation of international law.
Governments of the region and other continents have condemned the repression of peaceful expression and protest in Venezuela. It is crucial that, with urgency, multilateral pressure on the Venezuelan government be redoubled so that it frees those who were arbitrarily detained, desists from penal charges with political motives and acts so that those responsible for human rights violations respond for their crimes.
Acts prior to the publication of the report, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum shared their findings with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Penal Court and the OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, who is closely monitoring the human rights situation in the country.
“There are high Venezuelan officials who are responsible for the serious and widespread abuses that are being committed by their subordinates,” said Vivanco. “The governments committed to solving the Venezuelan crisis should send them a clear message: if the Venezuelan government does not demonstrate the ability or willingness for members of the security forces to respond criminally in Venezuela for the abuses they commit, then the international community will promote that justice is done abroad.”