Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
Although the government did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, NGOs reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and government-supported “colectivos,” carried out such killings during the year.
There was also no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.” The government described antigovernment protesters as terrorists, and the president granted security forces emergency powers to control demonstrations. The NGO Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989 (COFAVIC) continued to report there was no publicly accessible national registry of reported cases of extrajudicial killings.
The National Police Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Corps (CICPC) reportedly committed 30 percent of extrajudicial killings, with others committed by regional and municipal police. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against such perpetrators, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. Before her August 5 dismissal, then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz denounced the government’s failure to pursue officers suspected of committing human rights abuses. Ortega and her husband fled the country on August 17.
Government and NGO sources estimated at least 125 persons were killed in antiregime protests from April 1 to July 31. The Public Ministry reported 65 percent were victims of government repression. The NGO Foro Penal put the number at 75 percent, with “colectivos” responsible for half the deaths and the remainder divided between the Venezuelan National Police (PNB) and National Guard (GNB) forces. The Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Action and Education (PROVEA) estimated that 83 percent of regime victims died from gunshot wounds. On numerous occasions, security forces also used nonlethal ammunition at close range, severely injuring and in some cases killing protesters.
According to a Public Ministry investigation, in April a GNB officer shot and killed Juan Pablo Pernalete with a tear gas canister fired at point-blank range. Government and security officials rejected then attorney general Luisa Ortega’s findings and refused to apprehend potential suspects. On September 7, the newly appointed attorney general, Tarek William Saab, stated that this and other cases implicating government forces would be reopened. Saab’s appointment and subsequent decision to reopen investigations conducted during his predecessor’s tenure were widely criticized by local and international NGOs.
Protesters were also responsible for some deaths that occurred during and on the margins of demonstrations. On April 19, a protester in an apartment building threw a frozen water bottle at security forces but missed and killed a passerby.
The government continued its nationwide anticrime strategy begun in 2015, the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), which was characterized by large-scale raids conducted by hundreds of government security agents in neighborhoods allegedly harboring criminals. NGOs documented a number of operations that were carried out without court orders. OLP operations often resulted in civilian deaths; NGOs reported that at least 560 persons were killed as a result of OLP exercises between July 2015 and June, with illegal raids and violent attacks on homes becoming more widespread and far reaching. The Public Ministry reported that security forces killed 241 citizens during OLP exercises in 2016. The victims were largely considered to have been “resisting authority,” and only 17 security officials were formally charged for their involvement. The Public Ministry reported that authorities detained 2,310 persons during OLP operations between July and February 2016. Based on victim testimony, NGOs reported OLP operations were characterized by grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, blackmail, and destruction of personal property.
The Public Ministry continued to investigate the killings of 331 individuals during the 1989 “Caracazo.” In October 2016 the TSJ ruled that the 1988 El Amparo massacre case, in which government security forces allegedly killed 14 persons, would be reopened and tried before a military tribunal. NGOs appealed to the TSJ to hear the case in civilian court, but the TSJ denied their appeal, and the case remained open in military court.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits the arrest or detention of an individual without a judicial order and provides for the accused to remain free while being tried, but individual judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, COFAVIC, the Institute for Press and Society, Public Space, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, authorities rarely granted them formal platforms to present their petitions. Authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The GNB–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the CICPC, which conducts most criminal investigations, and SEBIN, which collects intelligence within the country and abroad, and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. SEBIN maintained its own detention facilities separate from those of the Ministry of Penitentiary Services. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The PNB reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states. The PNB, in coordination with the GNB, took a leading role in repressing antigovernment protests between April 1 and July 31.
Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force.
Impunity remained a serious problem in the security forces. The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office of Fundamental Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2016 annual report, the Office of Fundamental Rights cited 13,343 specific actions taken to “process claims” against police authorities for human rights abuses and charged 320 with violations. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not provide information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel, nor did the Attorney General’s Office release data.
State and municipal governments also investigated their respective police forces. By law, the national, state, and municipal police forces have a police corps disciplinary council that takes action against security officials who commit abuses. The National Assembly also may investigate security force abuses.
During the year the government at both the local and national levels took few actions to sanction officers involved in abuses. According to the NGO Network of Support for Justice and Peace, the lack of sufficient prosecutors made it difficult to prosecute police and military officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses. In addition, NGOs reported the following problems contributed to an ineffective judicial system: long procedural delays, poor court administration and organization, lack of transparency in investigations, and impunity of government officials. On June 15, Human Rights Watch reported that then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz had opened investigations in more than 600 cases of injury caused during the protests that began in April. In at least 10 cases, her office charged security forces with unlawful killings of demonstrators or bystanders. After her removal, her successor did not pursue the cases.
The National Experimental University for Security (UNES), tasked with professionalizing law enforcement training for the PNB and other state and municipal personnel, had centers in Caracas and five other cities. UNES requires human rights training as part of the curriculum for all new officers joining the PNB, state, and municipal police forces. Members of the PNB and state and municipal police also enrolled for continuing education and higher-learning opportunities as part of the Special Plan of Police Professionalization at UNES.
Societal violence was high and continued to increase. In the absence of official data, media outlets compiled violent death statistics using information from hospitals and morgues. According to media reports, there were at least 5,486 homicides in the first quarter of the year. The NGO Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) reported approximately 28,479 homicides, a rate of 91.8 per 100,000 residents in 2016, while the Public Ministry cited 21,752 violent deaths. NGOs and police noted that many victims did not report kidnappings to police or other authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in the police and that the actual occurrence was likely far higher.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals without a warrant. The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention; the law also requires detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. Authorities routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, it is not available for certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 5,462 protest-related cases of arbitrary detention between April 1 and December 31.
Several cases remained pending related to a series of arbitrary detentions the government carried out against opposition activists in the weeks before a planned opposition rally in September 2016. On May 24, authorities released independent journalist Braulio Jatar to house arrest after he had served eight months in SEBIN custody for reporting on an impromptu protest against President Maduro; a date for his next hearing had not been set by year’s end.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the OVP, approximately 79 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. According to the Public Ministry, in 2016 only 21 percent of trials concluded or reached sentencing. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges (4.7 penal judges per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, the latest date for which information was available).
Despite constitutional protections guaranteeing timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events giving rise to the cause of action. An automated scheduling system was ineffective at streamlining case logistics. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2015 annual report, the ministry pressed charges in 9.7 percent of the 556,000 cases involving common crimes. The ministry reported the closure of the remainder of the complaints but did not indicate final outcomes. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed, and hearings were postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or to access their case records when filing challenges. Some detainees remained on probation or under house arrest indefinitely.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary lacked independence and generally judged in favor of the government at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to reports from the International Commission of Jurists, between 66 and 80 percent of all judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the TSJ Judicial Committee. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subject to political influence from various ministries and the newly appointed attorney general to make progovernment determinations. There was a general lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and a lack of technical criteria for assigning district attorneys to criminal investigations. These deficiencies hindered the possibility of bringing offenders to justice and resulted in a 90 percent rate of impunity for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights violations.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them, but the requirement was often ignored and, even when respected, involved dubious allegations, according to human rights sources. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,500 public defenders, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected because of attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. COFAVIC and Foro Penal noted that, in trials related to the 2014 student protests, the government pressured defendants into using public defenders instead of private defense attorneys with the promise of receiving more-favorable sentences. Several NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.
Defendants may request no fewer than 30 days and no more than 45 days to prepare their defense. Defendants have the right to question adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses. By law, defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants and plaintiffs have the right of appeal.
Trial delays were common. Trials “in absentia” are permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of the procedure claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states that, in the absence of the defense attorney, a trial may proceed with a public defender that the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”
At the April 7 hearing of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, the five remaining witnesses refused to appear for the prosecution. Afiuni was accused of corruption and abuse of authority for her 2009 decision to conditionally release a businessman who had been held in pretrial detention beyond the maximum time prescribed by law. Afiuni continued to be subject to protective measures in place since her release to house arrest in 2011 that mandate she may not leave the country, talk to the media, or use social media, although the law states that such measures may not last more than two years.
The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment for less than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” community service, or any other condition imposed by the court.
The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the Organic Code of Military Justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs expressed concern with the government’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. During nationwide spring and summer protests, NGOs estimated at least 500 civilians were tried before military tribunals.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
The government used the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute individuals critical of government policies or actions. The regime reportedly continued the policy it began in 2012 of denying the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Venezuelan prisons. The number of political prisoners skyrocketed compared with 2016. Foro Penal reported 213 political prisoners were incarcerated as of December 31, down from 676 prisoners in late summer but well above the number at the beginning of the year. Many of those were detained for participating in protests, with the government deliberately engaging in a campaign to “catch and release” individuals. In some cases, political prisoners were held in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in traditional facilities. On December 24, the government said it would release 80 political prisoners as a “good will” gesture, releasing 44 individuals as of December 26, although many of those released were still under house arrest.
On June 22, SEBIN arrested opposition coalition leader Roberto Picon. Media reports and NGO contacts claimed SEBIN operated without an arrest warrant. At a military hearing on charges of rebellion and theft of items belonging to the military, NGO sources claimed the prosecution entered evidence that included a paperweight and a reference to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Picon remained in custody at year’s end.
On July 8, the Attorney General’s Office called for the immediate release of former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos, but the government failed to comply. On October 20, his lawyer reported that Ceballos had been held in solitary confinement for 14 days.
On August 1, SEBIN detained former metropolitan Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma in his home, where he was under house arrest, and returned him to Ramo Verde military prison. Ledezma’s return to prison occurred after he released a video calling on citizens to support antiregime protests. On August 4, SEBIN officials returned Ledezma to house arrest. On November 17, Ledezma escaped from house arrest and fled to Spain.
On August 1, SEBIN returned opposition party leader and former Caracas Chacao municipality mayor Leopoldo Lopez to prison for allegedly violating his house arrest conditions by posting a video in support of antigovernment protests. The TSJ had released him on July 8 to house arrest, allegedly due to health concerns. On August 5, SEBIN officials returned Lopez to house arrest, and the TSJ ordered him to cease outside communications.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
While there are separate civil courts that permit citizens to bring lawsuits seeking damages, there are no procedures for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for this right, but the government generally repressed or suspended it. The Law on Political Parties, Public Gatherings, and Manifestations and the Organic Law for Police Service and National Bolivarian Police Corps regulate the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize such laws that enable the government to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the laws also allowed the government to criminalize organizations that were critical of the government. Protests and marches require government authorization in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.”
As part of the “states of exception” in place throughout the year in municipalities bordering Colombia and imposed via an economic emergency decree, the government ordered the suspension of the constitutional right to meet publicly or privately without obtaining permission in advance as well as the right to demonstrate peacefully and without weapons.
The political opposition organized frequent nationwide protests from April 1 to July 31 demanding elections, respect for constitutional norms, freedom for political prisoners, and effective government action to relieve severe economic and humanitarian crises. Demonstrations, which involved marches, sit-ins, and at times coordinated blockages of the country’s infrastructure, frequently attracted thousands of participants. According to Foro Penal, security forces arrested more than 5,000 persons during protests between April 1 and July 31; of those detained, 1,381 remained in custody at the end of December.
Violent security force repression, often coordinated with armed “colectivos,” resulted in thousands of injuries and more than 125 deaths. On April 5, GNB officers attacked student protesters at the University of Carabobo in Carabobo State and injured dozens of students, including one who was shot in the back.
The government blamed the protest violence and deaths on opposition “terrorists.” On July 30, several PNB officers were injured when a pyrotechnic/gasoline device detonated in Caracas. The device appeared placed and timed to ignite while a column of PNB on motorcycles was passing. Video of the explosion was similar to that of a July 10 pyrotechnic explosion that also targeted security forces. The opposition did not denounce the attack.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the government did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections. In February the TSJ suspended all elections at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), citing a complaint submitted to them by four students and their attorney. According to credible sources, the students were regime supporters seeking to halt processes that were almost certain to elect students politically inclined toward the country’s opposition. On February 17, UCV student leaders nonetheless held elections, electing vocal opposition supporter Rafaela Requesens as head of the student government.
The president’s 2016 “state of exception” decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.” There were no reports that the government implemented the decree.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 1999 constitution, the country’s 26th since independence, provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but government interference, electoral irregularities, and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the July 30 ANC elections, the October 15 gubernatorial elections, and the December 10 mayoral elections.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Even though there had been no referendum to approve efforts for constitutional reform, the president directed, and on July 30 the CNE held, fraudulent and violently-protested elections to choose representatives for the ANC that would rewrite the constitution.
The ANC was composed of 500 government-aligned representatives chosen in a bifurcated process, with 200 to 250 chosen by “classes” of workers, indigenous persons and persons with disabilities, and farmers through direct votes in factories and offices. The other half was composed of “community leaders” chosen by direct, anonymous vote at the municipal level. President Maduro announced his intention, among other things, to use the ANC to incorporate government social welfare programs into the fabric of the constitution. During its first three weeks in office, the ANC dismantled the Attorney General’s Office, granted itself unchecked governing powers, moved up elections for governors, usurped legislative power, and stripped a parliamentarian of his immunity.
On August 5, the ANC unanimously voted to dismiss Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz. Ortega, formerly a Maduro government insider, began dissenting from the administration in March after the TSJ took formal measures to usurp the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s powers. She publicly described the TSJ’s decision as a “rupture of the constitutional order.” During the four months of antigovernment protests between April and July, Ortega also vocally denounced and investigated alleged human rights violations committed by government security officials. The International Commission of Jurists called for Ortega’s immediate reinstatement, describing the ANC’s decision “politically motivated.” Tarek William Saab, former human rights ombudsman and a government supporter, replaced Ortega and immediately moved to reopen cases investigated under his predecessor and remove all evidence of the investigations from the Public Ministry’s official website and social media accounts.
In the period preceding the ANC elections, PROVEA reportedly received 212 complaints from public workers whose employers threatened to fire them if they did not participate in the July 30 polling. The government reportedly fired a number of civil servants for failing to vote.
During the December 10 municipal elections, national media noted various irregularities, including: financial benefits offered to PSUV voters, government vehicles used to transport PSUV voters to voting centers, opposition party observers blocked from polling centers, media blocked from covering events at polling centers, forced mobilization of government workers and benefit recipients, and distribution of food coupons to progovernment voters.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties operated in a restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access. On November 9, the ANC gave final approval to the “Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance.” While the government stated that the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” media observed that the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists.
On August 12, the newly elected ANC usurped the CNE’s role and called for gubernatorial elections, overdue since December 2016, to be held October 15. Opposition candidates decried several electoral irregularities, including: a short period for candidate registration, campaigning, and coordination of election monitoring; a reduction in the number of voting machines in opposition neighborhoods; manipulation of ballot layouts, leading to a large number of invalid votes; a lack of official international election observers; the use of state resources to promote ruling party candidates; and a lack of a technical audit for CNE tabulation. The opposition won five of the 23 gubernatorial races. President Maduro demanded that opposition candidates submit to ANC authority by being sworn in before the body or be disqualified. The opposition governors-elect initially refused to recognize the ANC as constitutional, but on October 23, four of the governors were sworn in before the ANC president. The fifth candidate, Juan Pablo Guanipa, was disqualified, and on November 2, the CNE announced a new round of gubernatorial elections would be held in Zulia State on December 10.
In January the government began issuing a new, multipurpose identification card, the “carnet de la patria” (homeland card), required to access government-funded social services. Many applicants reported being required to provide proof of PSUV affiliation during the registration process to obtain the critical document. Government opponents said the card amounted to social control, a tool to leverage access to scarce subsidized consumer products in return for political loyalty.
Beginning on March 4, according to a new CNE mandatory registration process, political parties that won less than 0.5 percent of the 2015 legislative vote were required to participate in the CNE recertification process in order to participate in future elections. The CNE assigned each party a two-day period to register its supporters using biometric voting machines in a handful of locations across the country. Both opposition and progovernment parties described the process as punitive and biased against smaller political parties.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and/or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.