Politicization of the judiciary and official harassment of the political opposition and the media characterized the human rights situation during the year.
The following human rights problems were reported: unlawful killings; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; discrimination based on political grounds; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ right of association.
Deaths and Torture in Police Custody: In the 12 months through September 2008, the human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Venezuelan Program of Action and Education in Human Rights (PROVEA) reported 39 deaths resulting from mistreatment while in custody. PROVEA documented 247 unlawful killings by government security forces from October 2007 through September 2008. PROVEA reported that in the 12 months prior to September 2008, it received 17 complaints of torture (an increase from 11 the previous year), and 573 complaints regarding cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, a decrease from the 692 cases reported in 2007. Reports of beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies.
The Prisons: Prison conditions were harsh due to scarce resources, poorly trained and corrupt prison staff, and violence by guards and inmates. The prison-monitoring NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) estimated that existing prisons were designed to hold approximately 60 percent of the estimated 23,300 persons in the national penitentiary system. OVP estimated that only 34 percent of the prisoner population was formally convicted, while 60 percent was awaiting trial. The OVP estimated that the prison guard force was 10 percent of the required strength. Violence among prison gangs, including shootouts and riots, was common. Prison officials often illegally demanded payment from prisoners for transportation to judicial proceedings.
PROVEA stated that between January and October 2008, there were 390 deaths and 692 injuries in Venezuela’s prisons, compared with 498 deaths and 1,023 injuries during 2007. Inmates often had to pay guards and other inmates to obtain necessities such as space in a cell, a bed, and food. Most prisoners obtained food from their families, by paying prison guards, or in barter with other prisoners. Many inmates also profited from exploiting and abusing others, particularly since convicted violent felons often were held with pretrial detainees or first-time petty offenders. Trafficking in arms and drugs fueled gang-related violence and extortion.
Security forces and law enforcement authorities often imprisoned minors together with adults, even though separate facilities existedfor juveniles. Because reform institutions were filled to capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers where they were crowded into small, unsanitary cells, fed only once a day, and forced to sleep on bare concrete floors.
The Police: Corruption was a major problem among all police forces, whose members were poorly paid and trained. Impunity for corruption, brutality, and other acts of violence were major problems. In October 2007 the Ministry of Interior and Justice reported that 18,313 police officials, or 16 percent of the country’s police force, were under investigation for misconduct and alleged human rights violations, including kidnapping, torture, unlawful arrest and detention, and extrajudicial killings stemming from cases filed from 2000-07. In 2007 alone, 1,948 police officers were accused of alleged misconduct, according to the Ministry. The National Organic Police Law was passed in April 2007. This law created a national police force; however, there have been no efforts to staff this organization.
The Judiciary: While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judicial independence remained compromised. The judiciary also was highly inefficient, sometimes corrupt, and subject to political influence, particularly from the Attorney General’s Office, which in turn was pressured by the executive branch. According to the NGO Foro Penal, almost 40 percent of the judges were provisional and temporary. The Supreme Court’s Judicial Committee may hire and fire temporary judges without cause and without explanation, and it did so. Provisional judges legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges. The provisional and temporary judges, lacking tenure in their profession, particularly were subject to political influence from the Ministry of Interior and Justice and the attorney general.
In March an ex-prosecutor accused former attorney general Isaias Rodriguez of altering witness testimony and falsely implicating critics of the government in the Danilo Anderson case. Anderson was a high-profile prosecutor killed in a car bomb explosion in November 2004. The government’s one-time key witness, Giovanny Vasquez, told the media that Rodriguez paid him 1,075,000 Bs.F (approximately $500,000) to present false testimony in the case. The government reportedly reopened the case following the allegations against Rodriguez.
Political Prisoners and Apartheid: There were an estimated 12 political prisoners in the country. In some cases the political prisoners were held in distinct penal facilities, including DISIP installations and the Ramo Verde military prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross was permitted access to these political prisoners. The government was complicit with others, including National Assembly deputy Luis Tascon, in maintaining the “Tascon” and “Maisanta” Lists, which were used to identify and punish persons who signed a petition to hold a recall referendum on President Chavez. Human rights NGOs noted that persons listed were often ineligible to receive government jobs or services.
Freedom of Speech and Press: The combination of laws governing libel and broadcast media content, legal harassment, and physical intimidation of both individuals and the media resulted in practical limitations on these freedoms and a climate of self-censorship. The government employed a variety of mechanisms–legal, economic, regulatory, judicial, physical, and rhetorical–to harass the private media and engender an environment of intolerance towards a critical press.
The president preempted broadcasting on the nation’s airwaves to present hours-long government programs several times a week. The law mandates that all free-to-air television and national radio networks air these programs, called “cadenas,” in real time and uninterrupted. Independent media observers criticized the state media for extreme pro-government politicization. As of August 31, 2008 there were 89 “cadenas,” which tended to average more than one hour, some lasting up to six hours. The government media was used almost exclusively to promote the Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which is headed by Chavez, and publicly harass opposition figures.
Government officials, in some instances including Chavez, used government-controlled media outlets to air unsubstantiated accusations against private media owners. On September 11, 2008 Minister of Interior and Justice Tarek El-Aissaini claimed intelligence bodies had detected a plot against Chavez and implicated “businessmen, the 2-D Movement [civil society group headed by the director of one of the country’s leading newspapers], and military officials.” On September 23, 2008 a pro-government organization known as the La Piedrita Collective fired tear gas canisters at Globovision’s headquarters. Following the incident Lina Ron, leader of the Popular Unity for Venezuela Party (UPV), a small, radical, political party that supports Chavez, told the media that UPV and “La Piedrita” declared Ravell and Globovision “military objectives of the Venezuelan popular militias.” On December 1, “La Piedrita” members hurled tear gas canisters at the home of opposition radio commentator Marta Colomina.
In early November 2007 the National Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (CONATEL) launched an investigation against Globovision for its October 30 transmission of the show Hello Citizen, in which guest Rafael Poleo, editor of the opposition daily El Nuevo Pais, said that Chavez “would end up like Mussolini.” CONATEL filed suit against the network three days later, alleging that it was promoting the assassination of President Chavez. On November 24, 2007 CONATEL announced that it would also investigate Globovision for allegedly inciting violence by airing a speech by Carabobo state-governor elect Henrique Salas Feo during which he called on supporters to march to local election headquarters to demand the release of regional election results.
The government denied private media equal access to many official events, and in cases when private media had access to government facilities, they often did not have access to officials and information. For example, only the government radio and television stations were authorized to have reporters at the presidential palace. State-controlled television and radio stations and many foreign news reporters continued to have full access to official events.
The independent print media regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal and in order to comply with laws regulating the media. The country’s major newspapers were independently owned but heavily dependent on government advertising. In regions where local newspapers competed for the same audience and a smaller pool of advertisers, print media tended to exercise even more caution in order to secure financing from government sources. The government published one national newspaper, Diario Vea, with a relatively low circulation.
Freedom of Religion: President Chavez engaged in numerous rhetorical personal attacks on specific Catholic bishops and the Papal Nuncio. He warned Catholic bishops to refrain from commenting on political issues. On February 27, 2008 Chavez supporters temporarily occupied the Archbishop’s Residence in Caracas. They accused Catholic Church leaders of hindering the president’s political project and criticized the “counter-revolutionary” Papal Nuncio for giving refuge to student leader Nixon Moreno. Despite President Chavez’s overture to Jewish leaders, government institutions and officials and government-affiliated media outlets promoted anti-Semitism through numerous anti-Semitic comments. These actions created a spillover effect into mainstream society, which witnessed a rise in anti-Semitic vandalism, caricatures, and expressions at rallies and in newspapers. The host of The Razorblade, a progovernment talk show on state television, made frequent anti-Semitic slurs, and Diario Vea regularly published anti-Semitic comments. Incidents of spraying of graffiti, intimidation, vandalism, and other physical attacks against Jewish institutions were frequent.
Organized Labor: According to union leaders, the government organized groups of parallel construction unions to attack and intimidate construction workers affiliated with the CTV to gain control of lucrative construction projects. According to PROVEA, 29 reported deaths were associated with union clashes from October 2007 through September.The 2008 ITUC Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights notes that an employee of Fetratel reported that 243 collective agreements had not been signed in the public sector and that the leader of the national center, the National Workers’ Union, stated that the framework agreement for the public administration has not been discussed for 27 months and one covering Labor Ministry employees has not been discussed for 16 years. The survey noted that the workers’ representative in the People’s Front estimated that 3,500 collective agreements were not being discussed. The teachers’ union, called the Venezuelan Teachers’ Federation, and its 27 affiliated organizations lodged a formal complaint with the ILO to request that the state restore its collective bargaining rights, which were blocked in 2006.