WASHINGTON – The Human Rights Watch says high-level Venezuelan officials bear responsibility for pervasive, serious abuses being committed under their watch.
“These officials have failed to take steps to prevent or punish human rights violations committed by their subordinates,” the HRW said in a statement the other day.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of abuse, there is no evidence to indicate that key officials have taken any steps to prevent and punish violations. On the contrary, they have downplayed the abuses or issued implausible blanket denials, often blaming demonstrators for violence.
President Nicolás Maduro has publicly praised the conduct of the security forces and has never expressed concern about ongoing abuses. Similarly, Maj. Gen. Nestor Reverol, the interior minister, has recently heaped praise on a gathering of police chiefs from across the country, but he has said nothing about the need to curb abuse.
“The people in charge of institutions implicated in ongoing serious abuses are not taking steps to prevent rights violations or bring those responsible to justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It remains to be seen whether the recent statement by Defense Minister Padrino López recognizing that abuses were committed signals a real commitment to reining in abuse, or whether it is simply a propaganda effort to try to deflect attention from his own responsibility.”
Under international law, responsible government officials – particularly those who lead institutions implicated in human rights violations – have an obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent or punish serious human rights violations committed by their subordinates. These include the leaders of the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services, and the Military Attorney General’s Office.
Human Rights Watch has reviewed extensive evidence implicating the Venezuelan security forces, including the Bolivarian National Guard and the Bolivarian National Police, in a wide range of serious abuses since protesters took to the streets in early April 2017. The evidence includes testimony from victims and their families, witnesses, and lawyers defending detainees; video and photographs shared by reliable sources in Venezuela or published by independent media outlets; and information published by the Attorney General’s Office or provided by local human rights groups.
Security forces have used excessive force and condoned attacks by armed pro-government groups against massive anti-government protests, leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Security forces have also engaged in arbitrary arrests and physical abuse against detainees that in some cases would amount to torture. They have fired teargas canisters directly toward demonstrators, journalists, health facilities, and homes.
On June 6, Vladimir Padrino López, the defense minister, acknowledged for the first time that National Guard members had committed abuses, stating, “I don’t want to see another member of the National Guard committing an atrocity on the street.” He also said that those who fail to respect human rights and act unprofessionally “must assume their responsibility.” This is a departure from previous statements in which he claimed that operations had been carried out with “absolute respect for human rights,” and rejected the Attorney General’s Office’s findings implicating the Bolivarian National Guard in a protester’s death. Allegations of abuse have continued since then.
Human rights violations
Sixty-seven people have been killed during the demonstrations, including four members of the security forces, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general has opened investigations for the alleged violation of fundamental rights in more than half of over 1,200 recorded injuries. In at least 10 cases, the Attorney General’s Office has charged security forces with the unlawful killings of demonstrators or bystanders.
Thousands of demonstrators and bystanders have been detained since early April. Military courts have prosecuted more than 350 civilians for crimes including “treason” and “rebellion,” a practice that is inconsistent with Venezuela’s human rights obligations under international and regional human rights law. These proceedings have denied suspects any modicum of due process, resulting in many charges being adjudicated en masse with little pretense of presenting real evidence. Under Venezuelan law, the military attorney general has the authority to direct military prosecutors to take appropriate cases and to reject military involvement in cases in which they should not be involved, but that authority is not being exercised in all these cases.
Victims and families have implicated the Bolivarian National Intelligence Services in cases of arbitrary detention and abuse of detainees. The agency has failed to release detainees who obtained judicial orders for their release.
Maj. Gen. José Antonio Benavides Torres, the head of the Bolivarian National Guard, has said that the Bolivarian National Guard is “respectful of human rights” and that their behavior has been “very professional, impeccable.” Benavides Torres has also publicly claimed military courts were “competent” to try civilians, and the Bolivarian National Guard has brought civilian detainees to face charges in the military justice system. He has not publicly expressed any concern about widespread allegations of abuse implicating Bolivarian National Guard personnel.
With the exception of Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has only recently begun to distance herself from the government and condemn abuses, high-ranking officials do not appear to have taken any serious steps to bring abuses to an end or to ensure justice, Human Rights Watch said. Nor have other leading officials publicly supported the efforts by the attorney general to investigate recent abuses and push for all prosecutions of civilians to be handed over to civilian courts. In a country without judicial independence, where the attorney general is unlikely to obtain any meaningful results bringing those responsible to justice on her own, the voices of these high-level officials is indispensable to ensure accountability.
Some of the key high-level officials in charge of security forces implicated in widespread abuses, and responsible for the prosecution of civilians by military courts, include Maj. Gen. Benavides Torres, the head of the Bolivarian National Guard; Chief General Padrino López, the defense minister and the strategic operational commander of the Armed Forces; Maj. Gen. Nestor Reverol, the interior minister, Gen. Carlos Alfredo Pérez Ampueda, director of the Bolivarian National Police; Maj. Gen. Gustavo González López, the national intelligence director, and Capt. Siria Venero de Guerrero, the military attorney general.