While Venezuela is legally a multiparty, constitutional republic, the authoritarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro usurped control over all branches of government: executive, judicial, legislative, the offices of the prosecutor general and ombudsman, and the electoral institutions. In December 2020 the Maduro regime organized parliamentary elections that were rigged in favor of the regime, and approximately 60 countries and international bodies publicly declared the elections were neither free nor fair.
Civilian authorities’ control over the security forces continued to decline and was deeply politicized. Increasingly unpopular with citizens, the Maduro regime depended on civilian and military intelligence services, and to a lesser extent, progovernment armed gangs known as colectivos, to neutralize political opposition and subdue the population. The Bolivarian National Guard – a branch of the military that reports to 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 National Scientific Criminal, and Investigative Corps, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, which collects intelligence within the country and abroad and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The Bolivarian National Police report to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. The national police largely focused on policing Caracas’ Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The national armed forces patrolled other areas of the country. There were credible reports that members of security forces committed numerous abuses, and a 2020 United Nations report concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that Maduro regime authorities and security forces committed crimes against humanity.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by regime forces; forced disappearances by the regime; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with independence of the judiciary; unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; serious restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous persons and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.
The Maduro regime took no effective action to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the Maduro regime committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Although the regime did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and regime-supported colectivos, carried out hundreds of such killings during the year. In September the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela also noted, for the second consecutive year, concern regarding “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detentions, and torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence.” The FFM report stated “real and perceived opponents or critics” of the Maduro regime increasingly included individuals and organizations that documented, denounced, or attempted to address human rights or social and economic problems in the country. The FFM concluded that it had reasonable grounds to believe the justice system had played a significant role in the state’s repression of government opponents.
The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office for Protection of Human Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials. There was, however, no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted, convicted, 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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported a reduction in the rate of killings in the context of security operations or protests, yet the number remained high. No official data was available, but the NGO Monitor de Victimas reported 87 extrajudicial killings by the National Scientific, Criminal, and Investigative Corps (CICPC), Special Action Forces (FAES), Bolivarian National Guard, and Bolivarian National Police in greater Caracas from June 2020 to March 2021. The NGOs Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights (PROVEA) and Fundacion Gumilla documented 825 extrajudicial killings in the context of security operations or protests in the first half of the year.
According to the OHCHR, there were fewer allegations of extrajudicial killings attributed to FAES since September 2020 but more attributed to other forces, including state and municipal police forces and the CICPC.
On January 8-9, members of FAES, the Bolivarian National Police, and other security forces killed at least 24 persons, including two minors, in a police operation in Caracas’ La Vega parish. Investigations by human rights NGOs determined that at least 14 deaths constituted extrajudicial killings. Families of victims refuted the argument that the deaths stemmed from “resistance to authority,” the charges alleged by the Maduro regime to justify killings committed by security forces. The families reported security forces entered their homes without a warrant, robbed and killed the victims, and altered the crime scene to suggest a violent confrontation. Although human rights NGOs and international organizations demanded an investigation, the Maduro regime attorney general and human rights ombudsman did not issue a statement responding to the allegations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and other international organizations demanded the regime investigate and convict the security forces responsible for the violence. No arrests had been made as of November regarding any of these killings.
The Maduro regime attorney general reported that from 2017 through February, 1,019 officers were accused of homicide, torture, or inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment, but only 177 were convicted for such crimes, with no reference to arbitrary killings. The regime did not release details on officer convictions or other investigations of security officers involved in killings. The OHCHR found that investigations of human rights violations committed by regime security forces were hampered by the regime’s refusal to cooperate, tampering with evidence, judicial delays, and harassment of relatives of victims. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. In many cases the regime appeared to be scapegoating low-level functionaries while allowing high-level officials who issued the illegal orders to continue in their positions.
On March 21, the armed forces launched a military operation against a group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia dissidents (FARC-D) in Apure State. NGOs denounced serious human rights violations committed by Maduro regime security forces during the operation. PROVEA reported that members of the notoriously violent FAES kidnapped a family of five in El Ripial, executed them, and dressed the bodies with uniforms and weapons to suggest an affiliation with FARC-D. Local residents reported intense fear of members of the armed forces and noted that FAES officers seized cell phones to monitor communications.
Maduro regime defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez criticized coverage of the violence by media outlets and NGOs as the propagation of “falsehoods and terror.” The attorney general designated a special commission to investigate human rights violations committed during the conflict, but as of October the investigation had not resulted in charges.
The NGO Foro Penal confirmed incidents of forced disappearances continued and said the forced disappearances were deployed by the state to control and intimidate opponents. This practice also extended to family members to coerce them to turn in relatives. In 2019 Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) officials arrested Hugo Marino Salas, a civilian who had worked as a military contractor, but authorities did not respond to habeas corpus petitions filed by his relatives, and his whereabouts remained unknown as of November, according to OHCHR documentation. Foro Penal documented 33 disappearances through the end of May, with 14 persons still missing as of November.
The Maduro regime continued to deny requests by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country to conduct an investigation. On September 21, the Working Group requested the regime clarify the status of 20 disappearance cases in a report it presented to the UN Human Rights Council.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were credible reports that Maduro-aligned security forces regularly tortured and abused detainees. As of November the Maduro regime had not revealed information regarding individuals convicted or accused of torturing or abusing detainees.
The Maduro regime-aligned Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Human rights groups and the FFM reported the regime continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. The FFM also found that at times judges ordered pretrial detention in Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) or DGCIM facilities, despite the risk or commission of torture, even when detainees in court rooms denounced, or displayed signs consistent with, torture. No official data were available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because victims feared reprisal. The OHCHR found that in some cases doctors issued false or inaccurate medical reports intended to cover up signs of torture.
Media and NGOs reported that beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military controlled by the Maduro regime. Cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were also reported during the year. Regime-aligned authorities reportedly subjected detainees to asphyxiation, electric shock, broken bones, being hung by their limbs, and being forced to spend hours on their knees. Detainees were also subjected to cold temperatures, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation; remained handcuffed for extended periods of time; and received death threats to themselves and their relatives. Detainees reported regime-aligned security forces moved them from detention centers to houses and other clandestine locations where abuse took place. Cruel treatment frequently involved Maduro regime authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs detailed reports from detainees who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence by security units. The OHCHR noted instances of detainees telling judges they had been tortured or mistreated but then returned to the custody of those allegedly responsible for the reported mistreatment. In some cases the alleged perpetrators were called to testify against the victims in the criminal processes against them. The OHCHR continued to receive allegations of such cases, with no precautionary measures taken by judges or prosecutors to protect the alleged victims or address related due process concerns.
The Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America continued to denounce the construction of new places of torture utilized by FAES and colectivos. NGOs reported new torture patterns employed by military authorities, including the use of continuous loud noise, metallic spikes applied to the face, cells without ventilation or light, and exposure to the point of hypothermia.
Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in Maduro regime custody, including political prisoners who died in custody. As of October Foro Penal reported that 50 of the 260 individuals detained on politically motivated grounds were in a critical health situation. The health reports detailed muscle problems, severe fractures, hernias, and high blood pressure. Foro Penal also noted instances in which regime authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials.
The NGO Una Ventana por la Libertad (UVL) denounced the shooting and killing of Daniela Figueredo by a police officer while in custody in Zamora, Miranda State, on March 13. The officer was allegedly attempting to sexually assault the victim. The NGO also denounced that seven other prisoners in the cell were sexually assaulted and raped by police officers.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Despite continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force, the Maduro regime took no effective action to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses. 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. NGOs noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other regime authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in police.
On November 3, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced a formal investigation into crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela under the Maduro regime and signed a memorandum of understanding “to facilitate cooperation and mutual assistance to advance accountability for atrocity crimes.”
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, systemic violence, and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: According to the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP), prison capacity was approximately 21,200, while the estimated population was 37,500 inmates as of October. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails. Overcrowding was 177 percent on average across detention facilities, exacerbated by the excessive use of pretrial detention. Generally unsanitary conditions placed prisoners at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 and tuberculosis, which had become the main cause of death among inmates. Lack of water and cleaning supplies, inadequate access to recreation and sunlight, and insufficient food also increased the risk of respiratory diseases. The OVP reported that deaths from malnutrition rose during the year.
Male and female inmates were held together in most prisons. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks; however, a local NGO reported that male and female prisoners intermingled. Maduro regime security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, although separate facilities existed. Because institutions were filled beyond capacity, hundreds of children accused of infractions were confined in juvenile detention centers, where they were reportedly crowded into small, unsanitary cells.
The CICPC and SEBIN detention facilities, police station jails, and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Long delays in court proceedings and prison transfers created a parallel system that held prisoners in police station jails, in some cases for years, although these facilities were designed to hold individuals only for 48 hours. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A UVL study of 111 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 311 percent overcrowding. These centers had a designed capacity of 3,702 persons; as of April they housed 11,527 detainees. The UVL also found that only 9 percent of facilities provided medical services, one in 26 detention centers had potable water, 16 percent had running water, 22 percent did not have regular trash collection, 63 percent lacked proper restrooms, and 35 percent lacked electricity. None of the centers had proper infrastructure for persons with disabilities.
The Bolivarian National Guard and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The Maduro regime failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with one guard for every 100 inmates instead of one for every 10, as recommended by international standards. Armed gangs, known as pranes, exercised de facto control within some prisons and used these bases to operate criminal networks on the outside.
According to the OVP, between January and June, 170 prisoners died in prisons and pretrial detention centers. Some deaths resulted from detention center riots and unsafe prison conditions. On February 7, a grenade exploded in the Monagas Police Coordination Center, killing two prisoners killed and injuring 26. Official reports claimed the deaths resulted from a riot, but media reported one of the inmates was handling a grenade, indicating the lax security controls inside prisons.
There are no gender-oriented policies that address female-specific prison needs. According to the OVP, the female population was 2,327 inmates (6.6 percent of the total population), with only one prison dedicated exclusively to women. That facility, the Feminine Orientation Institute, with a designed capacity of 350, was overcrowded with 533 women. Pregnant or lactating women lacked proper facilities, medical assistance, prenatal supplements, and basic hygiene goods. Women were also victims of sexual violence, abuse, and torture, and they were frequently asked for sexual favors in exchange for food or water. NGOs reported guards knew and tolerated these abuses and sometimes were also accomplices.
The OVP reported inmate deaths were due to generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons, with 73 percent the result of tuberculosis and malnutrition. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates. The UVL and OVP reported that in 98 percent of detention facilities, prisoners depended upon family visits to supply them with food, water, and medicine. Media reported prison guards regularly stole food that families purchased for inmates and extorted families attempting to bring food into prisons. The NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces.” The OVP reported a generalized lack of medical care, drugs, equipment, and physicians for prisoners. Inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms, and pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for medical attention.
On January 3, indigenous political prisoner Salvador Franco died in regime custody after he was denied court-ordered medical attention due to his declining health. Franco and 12 other members of the Pemon indigenous community had been in the custody of the Maduro regime since 2019 for their alleged participation in an uprising against the regime. Human rights NGOs denounced the arbitrary arrest, torture, and violations of due process during the detention of the Pemon political prisoners. On February 12, the regime released the 12 surviving political prisoners, although they remained subject to restrictions of movement and other unspecified court orders. (See section 6, Indigenous Peoples for more.)
On August 29, military officer Gabriel Medina died in La Pica Prison, in Monagas State, after being held for three months for allegedly attempting to kidnap regime vice president Diosdado Cabello. Medina died due to respiratory arrest after requesting but not receiving medical attention for more than 30 days.
Administration: The Maduro regime’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding credible allegations of mistreatment or investigations of the harsh conditions that led to hunger strikes, violent uprisings, and massacres.
Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, every other week until the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to visit restrictions. In some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. For political prisoners, prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits by family and legal representation. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers experienced lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. More than 300 lay members from the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church volunteered in 40 prisons. Although prohibited from formally entering prisons, Catholic laity visited prisoners on family visitation days. The OHCHR conducted visits of eight detention centers, and the Red Cross was allowed access to three.
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 judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. NGOs such as Foro Penal, the Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions; however, Maduro regime authorities rarely granted detainees the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detentions in court, even though the right to petition is stipulated under law. Regime authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
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 apprehended in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals and raided their homes without a warrant. The OHCHR found that in several cases the Maduro regime issued warrants retroactively or forged the warrant’s date of issuance. Foro Penal maintained that detentions were often conducted without a warrant, which were provided retroactively by complicit prosecutors and judges. Detainees were presented without proper defense before a court days after being disappeared; public defenders were imposed in violation of detainees’ right to choose their own lawyers.
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 that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, release on bail is not afforded to persons charged with 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. The regime routinely ignored these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 266 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and August 16. More than 10 cases were referred to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, but the cases received no response from the regime.
On January 12, five members of the UNAIDS-affiliated HIV-prevention NGO Azul Positivo were detained in Zulia State by military police without explanation. They were released on February 10, but the charges they faced, relating to terrorism, terrorism financing, and money laundering, were not dropped.
The Maduro regime arbitrarily detained 15 journalists from January to July, according to a report from the NGO Un Mundo Sin Mordaza.
On July 2, SEBIN officers arrested Javier Tarazona, director of the domestic human rights NGO Fundaredes, two days after he held a news conference alleging links between members of the Maduro regime and illegal armed groups accused of human rights abuses (see section 5). He and two other Fundaredes workers were detained in Falcon State. As of November, two had been released, but Tarazona remained in custody without trial and in need of medical treatment (see section 5).
In November 2020 unionized oil worker Guillermo Zarraga was detained in Coro, Falcon State, without a warrant. He was later transferred to a military facility, the DGCIM headquarters in Caracas, with no contact with family or lawyers through October.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the Maduro regime attorney general, there were 22,759 persons in pretrial detention in December 2020, representing more than two-thirds of the total prison population. According to the UVL, approximately 70 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges. The OHCHR also observed the routine use of pretrial detention without due consideration of alternative measures to detention, even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FFM found that judges ordered pretrial detention as routine, rather than an exceptional measure, and without providing sufficient or appropriate justification.
Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events that led to the detention. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend. 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.
On June 12, Rodney Alvarez, a Ferrominera (state-owned industrial iron firm) union leader, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after waiting in pretrial detention for 10 years.
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 postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Maduro regime authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or 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 Maduro regime at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to the International Commission of Jurists, 85 percent of judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the Supreme Court (TSJ) Judicial Committee. The IACHR also reported the judiciary operated with opacity, which obfuscated whether judges were appointed according to established procedures or political imperatives. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subjected to political influence to make proregime determinations. The OHCHR reported that lower courts received instructions from the TSJ on cases, especially those of a political nature, and observed that TSJ decisions related to the legitimate National Assembly were inconsistent and raised concerns regarding politicization. Low salaries for judges at all levels increased the risk of corruption.
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 impunity rate for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights abuses.
NGOs reported the lack of independence of the judiciary impeded the normal functioning of investigations and judicial processes and highlighted the fragility of norms and procedures.
The September FFM report noted judges interviewed by the OHCHR experienced regular threats of dismissal, or pressure to resign or seek early retirement. The judges alleged the presidents of the criminal judicial circuits were responsible for many such threats for retaliatory or coercive purposes. Former judges and prosecutors reported they and their family members had been subjected to threats and intimidation, including phone tapping, surveillance, and monitoring.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial with oral proceedings for all individuals. By law defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. These requirements were often ignored, according to human rights organizations. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,300 state and municipal public defenders, but indigent defendants’ right to free counsel was often not respected due to attorney shortages. Free interpretation was often not available to defendants. Some 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.
The FFM and OHCHR reports concluded that authorities frequently violated the rights to a fair trial without undue delay and to legal counsel. Lack of judicial independence allowed authorities to use the judiciary to arbitrarily prosecute opponents and led to rampant impunity of rights violations.
The OHCHR documented cases in which the Maduro regime prevented lawyers from meeting with defendants and denied them confidentiality or access to case files. The OHCHR also identified that in the context of COVID-19, restrictions were placed on lawyers’ visits to detention places and at times used as an additional tool of the state to manipulate trial procedures. The excessive application of these restrictions impeded the right of prisoners to effectively access legal assistance, communicate freely and privately with counsel, and prepare an adequate defense.
Trial delays were common. Trials in absentia were 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 whom 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.”
In eight cases documented by the OHCHR, public defenders were appointed against the defendants’ express will, preventing access to legal counsel of their choice. For example, two foreign citizens who did not speak Spanish were represented, without understanding the proceedings, by a public defender. The UVL reported that, with the intention of lowering overcrowding in detention centers, 29 prisoners were pressured to accept charges to be released.
The law mandates that municipal courts handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment of fewer 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,” such as 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 and the IACHR expressed concern regarding the Maduro regime’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction. According to Foro Penal, since 2014 military courts had processed 872 civilians.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The Maduro regime used the judiciary to intimidate and prosecute individuals critical of regime policies or actions. Foro Penal reported 260 political prisoners in regime custody as of October, 50 of whom were in a critical state of health. Since 2014, a total of 15,761 persons had been detained for political reasons, many without knowing the charges against them or having access to legal defense. Foro Penal recorded more than 9,400 persons remained subject to arbitrary criminal proceedings for political reasons under precautionary measures. The regime routinely held political prisoners in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in civilian detention facilities.
According to Foro Penal, the state security forces that detained the most political prisoners were DGCIM, FAES, municipal police, the Bolivarian National Guard, and CICPC.
On February 25, legitimate National Assembly deputy Gilberto Sojo was arbitrarily imprisoned by FAES agents without a warrant or an evident excuse. Sojo, previously a victim of the Maduro regime’s arbitrary detentions, was released on September 3.
In July legitimate National Assembly deputy Freddy Guevara livestreamed his detention without a warrant by SEBIN officers on one of the main highways in eastern Caracas. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab publicly accused Guevara of maintaining links with Colombian paramilitary groups and announced without providing evidence that Guevara was to be prosecuted for terrorism, assault on the constitutional order, treason against the homeland, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Guevara’s lawyers were not allowed access to him, in violation of Guevara’s right to defense and due process. Guevara remained imprisoned in the SEBIN headquarters of El Helicoide in Caracas until August 15, when he was released with the condition of reporting to a court every 30 days.
As of November political leader and journalist Roland Carreno, arrested in October 2020, remained arbitrarily detained on grounds of conspiracy, weapons smuggling, and terrorism financing, despite facing serious health problems.
The six executives of the state-owned petroleum company’s (PDVSA) U.S.-based CITGO remained in prison, serving eight- to 13-year sentences delivered in a November 2020 trial marred by a lack of legal due process and based on politically motivated charges. Since their arrest in 2017, they had been granted house arrest twice but subsequently reimprisoned each time, most recently in October. Family members expressed concern regarding the deteriorating health of some of the men and the potential for contracting COVID-19 in prison.
Political prisoner and former Chavez defense minister Raul Isaias Baduel died in regime custody on October 12, the third political prisoner death of the year and 10th since 2014. Regime attorney general Tarek William Saab tweeted that Baduel died of complications from COVID, but Baduel’s family denied he was ill and claimed he was killed. Baduel, also a former general in the Venezuelan Armed Forces, was jailed from 2009 to 2015 on politically motivated charges after he broke with Chavez and again from 2017 until his death. A lawyer for the family told press that Baduel’s son, also detained by the regime, was threatened with torture in an attempt to force him to declare that his father had died of COVID. Other family members and the lawyer were also threatened. The OHCHR called for an independent investigation to determine the cause of death.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports that the Maduro regime attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools, including Interpol Red Notices, for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On May 11, the TSJ issued an extradition request for Leopoldo Lopez, former political prisoner and opposition leader. The regime sentenced Lopez in absentia to 14 years’ imprisonment for allegedly instigating violence during protests in 2014.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and personal privacy, but the Maduro regime generally failed to respect these prohibitions. In many cases, particularly regarding the political opposition, regime-aligned authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, and interfered in personal communications. FAES and other security forces regularly conducted both politically motivated and indiscriminate household raids. Throughout the year media reports documented raids by security forces on the homes of opposition party politicians, their relatives, and members of independent media. NGO offices were also subject to arbitrary raids and their work equipment seized.
State surveillance remained rampant, including through the assistance of telecom regulator the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) and state-run telecommunications provider CANTV. Furthermore, telecommunications companies reportedly assisted the regime in monitoring communications of political opponents. Technical attacks against media outlets appeared to be linked to the armed forces.
China, through its telecommunications corporation ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation), provided the Maduro regime with technology to monitor citizens’ social, political, and economic behavior through an identity card called carnet de la patria (homeland card). To force citizens to comply, the regime made it obligatory to present the card to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, subsidized fuel, and in some instances COVID vaccinations. Citizens essentially had no choice but to obtain and use the card despite the known tracking methods. Chinese companies such as Huawei and the China National Electronics Import-Export Company also supported, financially and technologically, these surveillance methods.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Maduro regime restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. A 2015 public decree regulates the right to assembly and grants the armed forces authority to control public order. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allows the Maduro regime to criminalize organizations and persons critical of it. Protests and marches require advance authorization from the regime and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” In addition NGOs and opposition deputies expressed concern that the illegitimate Maduro regime used quarantine restrictions as a form of social control to criminalize protests and silence critics.
Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, electricity, and access to vaccines. Workers also periodically demonstrated to demand a living wage. Some political parties and candidates staged small-scale demonstrations to protest moves to deny their registration for November’s regional elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict documented 3,393 protests in the first six months of the year, 59 of which were repressed by regime-aligned security forces and armed groups. The observatory documented 25 detentions, seven injured, and one death during protests as of September.
In at least three cases documented by the OHCHR, armed colectivos participated in the repression of demonstrations. The OHCHR also documented the killing of an 18-year-old fisherman from Toas Island, Zulia State, who was allegedly shot by Coast Guard officers on July 16 in a protest regarding access to fuel.
The OHCHR documented the detention of 34 persons in the context of protests and was informed of dozens of protesters who went into hiding or left the country due to fear of reprisals.
On July 21, Ada Macuare and Jhoana Paredes, nurses at the Ali Romero Hospital, were detained by police officers in Barcelona, Anzoategui State, after protesting for better working conditions, wages, and COVID-19 precautions. Paredes was released, but the state brought charges of terrorism and incitement to hatred against Macuare. Macuare was released in August without charges but with a requirement to report to court every 30 days.
On October 4, two members of the Tachira state police were sentenced to 27 and 21 years in prison, respectively, for the 2019 shooting of protester Rufo Chacon, blinding Chacon as he demonstrated in the city of San Cristobal for access to cooking gas.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the Maduro regime 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, interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
According to Aula Abierta, 73 percent of university teacher association group boards had expired, but registration obstacles imposed by proregime actors at the CNE prevented them from electing new board members.
The Maduro regime created the Association of Bolivarian Rectors to supplant the Venezuelan Association of University Rectors to exercise greater control over nonautonomous universities. Likewise, in the student sphere, the regime promoted the National Federation of Students as a parallel creation to the Federation of University Centers, and in the administrative sphere, the regime developed the Federation of University Workers of Venezuela to supplant the Federation of Teachers Associations University.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
In-country Movement: The Maduro regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
The “state of alarm,” declared by Maduro in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, restricted freedom of movement and suspended social and business activities, and it was extended several times during the year. The decree authorized regime-aligned security forces broad latitude and discretion to enforce the decree and conduct investigations. Media reported the Maduro regime employed the armed forces, FAES, and armed colectivos to enforce quarantine measures. PROVEA documented an excessive use of force in implementing the lockdown, including arbitrary detentions, beatings, torture, and humiliating treatment for individuals allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures. NGOs documented police and military forces utilizing the movement restrictions as a premise to solicit bribes from citizens at checkpoints. In November 2020 the Maduro regime reopened airports for limited international travel, beginning with travel to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Turkey, and Iran and later expanding in June to Russia, Bolivia, and Panama.
Due to continued border closures through much of the year, Venezuelans traveling into and out of the country had no choice but to use informal border crossings that largely were controlled by illegal armed groups. While no official statistics were available, activists and NGOs reported that citizens utilizing the crossings faced significant risks, such as gender-based violence and human trafficking, including forced labor, sexual servitude, and the forced recruitment of children into armed conflict at the hands of criminal groups. Human traffickers used sea routes to transport victims to nearby countries, and migrant smugglers also sent refugees and migrants on dangerous sea journeys. On April 21, at least 10 intending migrants were killed when their boat sank on its way to Trinidad and Tobago in the Boca de Serpiente sector, Delta Amacuro State; another 12 individuals survived and seven were missing.
Individuals were often subjected to debt bondage or forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing to illegal armed groups, increasing the vulnerability of migrants to labor exploitation, harassment, sexual violence, and human trafficking, including forced labor and sex trafficking. Many were vulnerable to recruitment, sometimes forced, into drug trafficking rings or illegal and other armed groups.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport remained difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and in some instances did not receive passports after years of delays. The regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and National Assembly deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The NGOs PROVEA and COFAVIC documented cases of internal displacement of families fleeing violent gang clashes in the communities of La Vega and La Cota 905 in western Caracas. Clashes between military forces and nonstate armed groups in Apure caused hundreds of civilians to be displaced to neighboring states and municipalities.
f. Protection of Refugees
The Maduro regime did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and there is an established system for providing protection to refugees, although delays in the system allowed for abuse at the hands of private individuals and representatives of the state.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission’s headquarters, particularly vulnerable groups, including women with young children, older persons, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by regime authorities at checkpoints and other locations.
Employment: Refugees without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to education and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties in achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Maduro regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In 2019 CONARE announced the creation of a border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The 1999 constitution provides citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections, but Maduro regime interference, electoral irregularities, unconstitutional appointments of electors, and harassment and manipulation of voters and candidates restricted the exercise of this right in the 2018 presidential and municipal elections, the 2020 legislative elections, and the November 21 regional elections for governor, mayor, and state and local officials. The regime continued to arbitrarily ban key opposition figures from participating, maintained hundreds of political prisoners, utilized judicial processes to steal the legal personages of political parties, and denied opposition political representatives equal access to media coverage and freedom of movement in the country.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate second term as president began on January 10, 2019, following flawed presidential elections in 2018, which were widely condemned by the political opposition and international observers as fraudulent and constitutionally invalid. On January 23, 2019, legitimate National Assembly president Juan Guaido invoked Article 233 of the constitution, which calls on the National Assembly president to assume the role of interim president in the event of presidential vacancy.
In December 2020 the Maduro regime conducted fraudulent legislative elections that failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility. The regime usurped the TSJ’s legislative powers and illegally appointed members to the CNE; hijacked political parties through the theft of their brand name, assets, and ballot logos, including those from the left that challenged the regime’s control of Chavez’s political legacy; prohibited many political opponents of the regime from running for office and stripped them of their political rights; kidnapped, exiled, and tortured opposition politicians; suppressed indigenous political representation; and arbitrarily increased the number of seats in the National Assembly from 167 to 277. Consequently, electoral and constitutional experts, most independent political parties, and civil society organizations rejected the process. Despite international nonrecognition of the electoral results, the new assembly was sworn in on January 5, and Jorge Rodriguez elected president of the body.
The interim government utilized a provision in the constitution to hold a public referendum, the Consulta Popular, in December 2020. The referendum questions focused on rejecting the Maduro regime’s December 6 farce election and restoring democracy through free and fair presidential and legislative elections. Participation was open to both citizens in the country and abroad, who could vote via a secure online platform. In-person voting was also available within the country.
Additionally, the National Assembly elected in 2015 (AN-2015) reformed the Statute for the Transition to allow a smaller body called the Delegate Commission to assume the legislative competences beyond the expiration of its constitutional period in January 2021. A group of opposition deputies from different political parties did not support the decision and ended their mandate on January 5. The Delegate Commission continued to hold Ordinary Session throughout the year, led by Interim President Juan Guaido.
On February 9, the illegitimate National Assembly elected the members of the Nominations Committee, starting the process stipulated in the constitution to elect CNE members. After three months the process resulted in the appointment of 15 new rectors (council members) – five main rectors and 10 assistants. With participation of the civil society group Foro Civico, which engaged in discussions with members of the Maduro regime, the illegitimate assembly appointed five opposition-linked rectors. Of those, two were main and the other three assistant. The reconstituted CNE returned the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) ticket, barred in 2018, to the opposition, paving the way for the opposition to run under the MUD ticket in the November 21 regional elections. Although the appointment of two of the five principal rectors to opposition-linked candidates helped provide greater balance in the CNE, major electoral problems remained. Control of party and candidate registration remained outside the hands of legitimate political party leaders and in the hands of regime representatives, hundreds of opposition figures remained barred from running for elections, and the electoral registry remained out of date and incomplete.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Opposition political parties and PSUV dissidents operated in an increasingly restrictive atmosphere characterized by intimidation, the threat of prosecution or administrative sanction on questionable charges, and very limited mainstream media access.
The Maduro regime regularly targeted National Assembly deputies, interim government staffers, and other opposition politicians and their relatives through violence or threats of violence, arbitrary arrest, politically motivated prosecution, violation of privacy, and restrictions on movement. Multiple opposition politicians fled the country or sought refuge in diplomatic missions to avoid arbitrary detention and the possibility of torture. On February 25, FAES detained AN-2015 Popular Will (VP) deputy Gilberto Sojo, violating legal procedures for detention and holding him incommunicado for more than 96 hours. Sojo was detained until September 3 for allegedly violating the previous terms of his arrest in 2016 when he was held for two years on spurious terrorism charges. On July 12, VP deputy Freddy Guevara was detained by Maduro regime forces on false accusations of terrorism and treason related to violent clashes in the neighborhood of La Cota 905 in western Caracas. The detention was recorded live by Guevara himself. Guevara was freed one month later without judicial charge. On the same day, Interim President Juan Guaido was harassed in the parking lot of his residence by SEBIN agents. On July 13, the regime attorney general alerted that capture orders were issued against VP militants Luis Somaza, Emilio Grateron, Gilber Caro, and Hasler Iglesias. Grateron sought refuge in the Chilean embassy where he remained as of November, while Caro fled the country on August 31.
According to a March 23 OHCHR report, the Maduro regime attorney general announced 25 investigations had been opened against members of the opposition for the alleged seizure of national assets abroad. The attorney general indicated they were under investigation for crimes of usurpation of functions, corruption, aggravated embezzlement, fraudulent use of public funds, conspiracy with foreign governments, terrorism, rebellion, trafficking in weapons of war, treason, and criminal conspiracy.
In negotiations held in Mexico between the regime and political opposition figures in August-September regarding the crisis in Venezuela, the regime granted apparent flexibility to some opposition party members who were competing in or supporting the November 21 regional elections. Social Christian Party leader Roberto Enriquez, who had taken refuge in the Chilean embassy in 2017, joined the negotiations on August 12, ending his asylum. Freddy Guevara also joined the negotiations weeks after his release. Other opposition figures in exile returned to the country as well, including AN-2015 deputies Americo De Grazia (former Radical Cause member) and Justice First party members Jose Manuel Olivares and Tomas Guanipa, all running for office. Other exiled returnees included Enzo Scarano (Clean Accounts) and Ramon Martinez.
Despite these changes, the Maduro regime continued to hold hundreds of individuals in prison on politically motivated charges and prevented hundreds of opposition candidates from exercising their full rights to run for office. On September 26, Bolivarian National Guard forces temporarily detained Caroni (Bolivar State) mayoral candidate Carlos Chancellor as he was campaigning; they released him three hours later without explanation or charges.
In November the regime allowed some political opponents to participate in the elections for governors, mayors, and regional and local officials, but it did not allow for conditions that would permit free and fair conditions for true competition. Civil society organizations noted the elections were marred by credible reports of election irregularities and violations of election law and that the regime had stifled the possibility of a fair competition through pre-election manipulation to include arbitrary arrests and harassment of political and civil society actors, criminalization of opposition parties’ activities, bans on candidates across the political spectrum, manipulation of voter registration rolls, and persistent media censorship.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.
On July 29, the CNE published the Norms on Gender Parity for Alternative Nominations for political parties during regional and municipal elections. According to the norms, the political parties must present a list of candidates with a 50-50 percent gender parity both in their principal candidates’ nominations and their alternates.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the Maduro regime did not implement the law effectively. Several officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The regime frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. According to Transparency International, among the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were impunity, systematic institutional weakening, and a lack of transparency in the management of government resources.
Corruption: According to Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab, during 2020, 802 persons were convicted for corruption, with a total of 2,274 convicted since August 2017, although observers claimed regime statistics were unreliable. From January to June, 269 public prosecutors were charged and 24 convicted of corruption. Between February and July, 51 senior managers at companies and state-owned institutions were prosecuted on corruption grounds.
Corruption was a major problem in all security and armed forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. No data were publicly available on the number of cases involving police and military officials during the year, although the Public Ministry publicized several individual cases against police officers for soliciting bribes and other corrupt activities.
The NGO Transparencia Venezuela reported an increase of corruption in the country amid the pandemic crisis, highlighting the opacity of the vaccination plan and the purchase of medical equipment from the governments of Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran. NGOs also documented an increase in bribes requested by military and police during the quarantine periods in exchange for allowing citizens to move freely throughout the country.