Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the illegitimate 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 thousands of such killings during the year.
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 also 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.”
On August 20, FAES officers shot and killed journalists Andres Nieves Zacarias and Victor Torres during a raid at the headquarters of Guacamaya TV in Zulia State. Torres’ father, the director of the television station, stated FAES officers then seized all of the station’s audiovisual equipment and planted weapons on the victims’ bodies to simulate an alleged confrontation. Illegitimate regime attorney general Tarek William Saab called the homicides extrajudicial killings, and four FAES officers were arrested in connection with the killings.
The illegitimate regime attorney general reported that from 2017 to July, one officer was convicted of homicide for killings in the context of security operations. The regime did not release details on the officer’s conviction 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 its 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.
A UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela report released in September stated that extrajudicial killings were committed by officers belonging to the military, police, and intelligence services, including in more recent years by FAES and the National Scientific Criminal and Investigative Corps (CICPC) officers. The FFM asserted that some high-level authorities had knowledge of and contributed to the crimes, while others who knew or should have known of the crimes did not take measures to prevent or stop them. Victims were typically young men, targeted due to alleged criminal activity, revenge, or mistaken identity, who were shot and killed in their homes or neighborhoods. Media and NGOs reported security forces attempted to cover up extrajudicial killings by planting evidence or altering crime scenes to suggest an altercation or attempted escape by the victim. The FFM concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe that authorities and security forces planned and executed serious human rights violations, including killings, some of which amounted to crimes against humanity, since 2014. The FFM report also stated there were reasonable grounds to believe that Maduro and other regime officials either ordered, contributed to, or were involved in the commission of the crimes and human rights abuses documented in the FFM report.
The NGOs Foro Penal and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights documented 753 enforced disappearances of political detainees between 2018 and June 2020. An OHCHR investigation found that almost all individuals detained by the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) were subjected to enforced disappearances for periods of seven to 40 days after their arrest, raising their risk of also becoming victims of torture and abuse. The illegitimate 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 March 10, FAES officers detained National Assembly (AN) deputy Renzo Prieto and two assistants, without a warrant for their arrest, after the three participated in a protest in support of interim president Guaido. The illegitimate Maduro regime authorities did not disclose Prieto’s location, nor did they allow any form of communication between Prieto and his family or lawyers during his detention. Prieto’s family expressed significant concern for his state of health, due to an injury that required urgent surgical care and risk of contracting COVID-19. While in regime custody, Prieto stated he was forced to sleep on the floor in a frigid, windowless, four-by-eight-foot cell with five other detainees. On August 31, Prieto was released. Prieto previously had been in regime detention from 2014 to 2018, also after participating in a protest, in what the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was an arbitrary arrest.
The illegitimate Maduro regime arrested AN deputy Gilber Caro in December 2019, his third detention since 2017, and did not reveal his location or permit contact with his lawyer until January 21. On August 31, he was released.
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 tortured and abused detainees. According to the illegitimate Maduro regime, as of May, 26 individuals had been convicted of torturing or abusing detainees.
The 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 reported the regime continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No official data were available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture. The NGO 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 not disclosing signs of torture.
Press 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 illegitimate Maduro regime. 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 illegitimate 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 regime-aligned authorities. The FFM found that regime-aligned security forces, specifically the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) and DGCIM, subjected detainees to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and that high-level regime officials committed, ordered, or contributed to the abuses or were aware of their activities and failed to prevent or stop them.
Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in regime custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which regime authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials. PROVEA identified 574 cases of torture by regime-aligned security forces in 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least 23 individuals. NGOs reported that members of the military represented a growing number of victims of torture, such as retired naval captain Rafael Acosta Arevalo, who died of injuries sustained from torture while in regime custody in June 2019.
Political activist Vasco Da Costa, who had been detained in the Ramo Verde military prison despite being a civilian, was released in August 2019 after more than two years in regime custody. Da Costa described extended periods of torture at the hands of the DGCIM, including use of electric shocks, simulated drownings, and beatings to the feet and stomach to the point that he lost control of his bowels. According to Da Costa, prison guards systematically beat and mutilated detainees according to the detainees’ occupations, targeting the legs of soldiers, the hands of a surgeon who was arrested because he was the spouse of a soldier wanted by the regime, and in the case of Da Costa, his eyes due to his role as an academic.
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 illegitimate 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. The regime, backed by Cuban security force members embedded in Maduro’s security and intelligence services, refused to cede power, preventing the interim government from taking action.
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 A Window to Liberty (UVL), prison capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails. Overcrowding was 172 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP) noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent. Overcrowding and generally unsanitary conditions placed prisoners at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and COVID-19.
There were two women’s prisons, one each in the states of Miranda and Zulia. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that male and female prisoners intermingled. Illegitimate 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 detention facility, 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 248 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 315 percent overcrowding. The UVL also found that 5 percent of facilities provided medical services, more than 90 percent did not have potable water, 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms, and 35 percent lacked electricity.
The National Guard (GNB) and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The illegitimate 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.
According to the UVL and OVP, between March and August, 287 prisoners died in prisons and jails, more than double the number compared with the same period in 2018. Some deaths resulted from prison and detention center riots. For example, on May 1, GNB officers opened fire on prisoners during a riot at the Los Llanos penitentiary in Portuguesa State, leaving 47 prisoners killed and 67 injured. Illegitimate regime Minister of Prisons Iris Varela claimed the riot began as an attempted prison escape, an account disputed by inmates and their family members, who stated the prisoners were protesting malnutrition. Media reported the prison, which was designed for 750 prisoners, held at least 2,500 inmates. AN members called the violence a massacre, and human rights NGOs and the OHCHR called for an investigation. The illegitimate Maduro regime charged 10 persons for their involvement in the violence.
The OVP reported inmate deaths 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 reported that in more than 90 percent of detention facilities, prisoners depended upon family visits to supply them with food, water, and medicine. Media reported prison guards regularly stole food families purchased for inmates. Prisoners were unable to meet their basic needs when illegitimate Maduro regime authorities suspended family visits to prisons and detention centers on April 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules resulted in the isolation of those with HIV/AIDS in “inadequate spaces without food and medical attention.” 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.
Administration: The illegitimate regime’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to requests from the OVP, UVL, other human rights organizations, inmates, or families regarding inmates 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, until authorities suspended family visits in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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. As of September the OHCHR had conducted 15 visits of 13 detention centers.
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. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the illegitimate Maduro regime generally did not observe this requirement. While 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, illegitimate Maduro regime authorities rarely granted them formal means to present their petitions. Regime authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
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 illegitimate Maduro regime issued warrants retroactively or forged the warrant’s date of issuance. 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 281 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and July 31.
On May 9, illegitimate regime security forces arrested Junior Pantoja, a former city councilman and soup-kitchen manager, during a violent police confrontation with armed gangs in a Caracas neighborhood. Pantoja’s relatives and neighbors, as well as AN, called the arrest arbitrary and politically motivated due to his role as a community leader. Pantoja’s lawyer claimed security forces planted five bullets on Pantoja in order to arrest him for gang-related activity and arms trafficking. On June 24, he was released and on August 23, he died of a respiratory infection after his health deteriorated while in regime custody.
On October 4, the illegitimate Maduro regime, without providing explanation, prevented interim president Juan Guaido’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, from boarding a flight to Spain. Marrero had been released from regime custody on August 31, following his March 2019 arrest and months of arbitrary judicial delays. Media reported contradictory and conflicting evidence submitted by prosecutors–including allegations that rifles and a grenade were planted at Marrero’s residence on the day of his arrest. Marrero was charged with conspiracy, treason, and weapons smuggling. Many international entities, including the Lima Group and the EU, condemned Marrero’s 2019 arrest as politically motivated.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. 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.
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.
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 illegitimate regime at all levels. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to reports from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), more than 75 percent of all judges had provisional appointments and were subject to removal at will by the Supreme Court (TSJ) Judicial Committee. 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 AN 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 rate of impunity for common crimes and a higher percentage of impunity for cases of alleged human rights abuses.
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, but the requirement was often ignored and, even when respected, involved dubious allegations, 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 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. 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 OHCHR documented cases in which the illegitimate Maduro regime prevented lawyers from meeting with defendants and denied them confidentiality or access to case files.
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 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.”
On November 8, the TSJ convicted judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni of “spiritual corruption,” an offense that does not exist under criminal law, and sentenced her to five years’ imprisonment. Human rights NGOs and lawyers called the charges fabricated and an attempt to coerce other judges to take action against opposition politicians. In 2009 authorities arrested Afiuni on charges of corruption and abuse of authority for her decision to release a businessman who had been held in pretrial detention beyond the maximum time prescribed by law. Following her release to house arrest in 2011, regime-aligned authorities limited her movements and ability to speak to the press before granting her an unconditional release in July 2019.
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,” 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 with the 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 870 civilians.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The illegitimate Maduro regime used the judiciary to intimidate and prosecute individuals critical of regime policies or actions. Foro Penal reported 351 political prisoners in regime custody as of December 28, compared with 388 political prisoners at the end of 2019. 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.
On August 31, the illegitimate Maduro regime announced the “pardon” of 110 political prisoners. These pardons were conditional, with regime officials threatening to rescind the benefit if any individuals “return to any act of terrorism, violence, or coup mongering,” as arbitrarily determined by the regime. According to Foro Penal, however, only 50 of those named were in regime custody at the time. Of the prisoners, 23 had already been released, and the remaining 37 were AN deputies either in exile, in foreign embassy asylum in Caracas, or facing prosecution. Media and NGOs noted that since most on the list were not duly convicted or even charged with any crime, the move was a dismissal rather than a pardon. The list did not include any members of the military, although they represented 20 percent of political prisoners, according to Foro Penal. On September 7, regime attorney general Tarek William Saab encouraged the released detainees to participate in the December 6 parliamentary elections, but he warned they would be rearrested if found to have committed additional “crimes.”
On March 15, SEBIN officers arrested AN deputy Tony Geara. Geara was charged with financing terrorism and weapons trafficking after he posted comments on social media noting that a local hospital did not have running water. Media reported in August that Geara tested positive for COVID-19 while in SEBIN custody in Bolivar State. On August 31, Geara was released.
On August 28, AN deputy Juan Requesens was released to house arrest after being detained for more than two years for his alleged involvement in an attempted assassination of Maduro. International observers criticized irregularities in Requesens’ trial, which was marred by lengthy judicial delays as well as a lack of transparency and legal due process.
On October 14, opposition party leader Leopoldo Lopez fled to Spain after more than one year inside the Spanish embassy in Caracas. He previously escaped house arrest during mass demonstrations in April 2019, and in May 2019 the illegitimate Maduro regime issued a warrant for his arrest. Lopez was notably not included in the August 31 “pardon” of political prisoners.
In 2017 the head of state-owned oil company PDVSA summoned six executives of U.S.-based subsidiary CITGO to Venezuela for an emergency budget meeting: U.S. citizens Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, and Jose Luis Zambrano and U.S. Legal Permanent Resident Jose Angel Pereira (collectively known as the CITGO-6). Upon their arrival in Caracas, they were detained by masked security agents; charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and criminal association for an alleged deal they signed to restructure CITGO bonds; and confined in one of the country’s most dangerous prisons. After their initial appearance before a judge was cancelled dozens of times during three years, the trial of the six began in August. On November 21, they were convicted and sentenced as soon as closing arguments concluded to terms of eight to 13 years in prison. Their cases were marred by a lack of legal due process and based on politically motivated charges. The illegitimate regime denied media and human rights groups access to the trial.
There were credible reports that the illegitimate Maduro regime attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On October 22, the TSJ issued an extradition request for Ivan Simonovis, former political prisoner and sitting interim government commissioner for security. The regime charged Simonovis with the attempted murder of Maduro, treason, terrorism, and weapons trafficking. Simonovis escaped from house arrest in May 2019 and fled the country.
While there are separate civil courts that permit citizens to file lawsuits seeking damages, there are no procedures for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights abuses.
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 illegitimate 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, or 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 and their relatives.
State surveillance remained rampant, including through the assistance of telecom regulator the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) and state-run telecommunications provider CANTV. In February 2019 the interim government created a website for volunteers to participate in the delivery of international humanitarian aid. CANTV manipulated the Domain Name System to redirect visitors to a fake website registered to CONATEL that was designed to phish visitors’ personal information. Further, telecommunications companies reportedly assisted the government 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 government with the 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 Maduro regime made it obligatory to present the card to obtain social services, including pensions, medicine, food baskets, and subsidized fuel. 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 were also supporting financially and technologically these surveillance methods.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel, slander, and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned illegitimate Maduro regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: The law makes conviction of insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In 2017 the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC) gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Conviction of exposing another person to public contempt or hatred is punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. Espacio Publico reported 795 violations of freedom of expression, including 135 arrests, between January and August.
The illegitimate Maduro regime threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out regarding COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic. Espacio Publico documented at least 59 arrests by September for COVID-19 coverage.
On March 17, the DGCIM detained medical doctor Ruben Duarte for publishing a video deploring the lack of supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) at the San Cristobal Central Hospital. In August the NGO United Doctors for Venezuela reported at least 12 health-care workers were arrested for demanding PPE. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals, who feared for their own and others’ safety by working without PPE, reported they also faced regime repression for failing to appear for work.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that conviction of inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience of the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) used the nearly 600 regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; CONATEL oversees the law’s application.
The illegitimate Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. Following the shuttering of DirecTV’s operations on May 19, the TSJ ordered the seizure of all property and equipment of DirecTV and banned DirecTV’s executives from leaving the country. On August 14, DirecTV resumed operations, although multiple regime-independent outlets reported challenges–including veiled threats, outright blocks, and fines–preventing them from broadcasting freely over DirecTV when service was re-established.
The illegitimate Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime programming. In addition private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from covering AN debates and activities. The country’s online independent newspapers were frequently blocked by CANTV. NGOs noted that regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during interim president Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions. On January 5, CANTV restricted access to social media on the same day as a leadership vote in the AN, while security forces blocked lawmakers and media from accessing the premises.
The illegitimate regime arbitrarily detained 28 journalists from January to July, according to the national journalists’ union.
Media and NGOs reported increased repression and intimidation of journalists following the emergence of COVID-19. Despite a specific exception permitting travel for members of the press during quarantine, the illegitimate Maduro regime limited the freedom of movement of journalists.
On March 21, FAES officers arrested freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas and his family for inciting hatred. Rojas’ reporting questioned figures published by the illegitimate Maduro regime regarding COVID-19 cases. On August 2, the illegitimate regime granted Rojas a conditional release. DGCIM officers arrested Nicmer Evans on July 13, also for inciting hatred. NGOs and journalists called the arrest a retaliation against Evans due to his role as the founder and director of news site Punto de Corte, which frequently published articles critical of the regime. On August 31, Evans was released.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. The national journalists’ union reported 260 attacks on journalists from January to August. On February 11, regime supporters and colectivos attacked at least 12 journalists covering the return of interim president Guaido from an international tour. Maduro and illegitimate regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the illegitimate Maduro regime’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The regime also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the local journalists’ union, print news outlets closed due to the illegitimate Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. In January, 16 print outlets suspended circulation, generally for lack of supplies, and at least 200 media outlets had been blocked, censored, or closed by May.
The illegitimate Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
A study by the NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) found that more than five million citizens lived in “media deserts,” areas that had no access to print, television, radio, or digital media due to censorship, forced closures of television and radio stations, and reprisals against journalists. Access to information was most heavily restricted in border territories and indigenous communities.
Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use libel and slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths. In October investigative journalist Clavel Rangel was forced to leave the country promptly after publishing an expose on corruption in Bolivar State. The subject of the report, a businessman with links to the regime, filed a defamation suit against Rangel, which would have prohibited her from discussing the case in media or leaving the country.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The illegitimate Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year Maduro renewed three times the “state of alarm” issued on March 13, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The regime also threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out on COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country, often encouraged or left undeterred by the Maduro regime, made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.
The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The illegitimate regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. The China National Electronics Import-Export Company provided the regime with cyber support, technical experts, and a suite of software and hardware that was a commercialized version of China’s “Great Firewall” to maintain online censorship, control information, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted illegitimate Maduro regime authorities in locating users.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. As of September the illegitimate Maduro regime blocked 40 websites and online platforms that contained information regarding COVID-19.
CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the illegitimate regime’s official rate, as well as cryptocurrency exchanges. The regime-controlled internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS and the VE Sin Filtro (VE without Filter) internet monitoring project sponsored by internet freedom watchdog Venezuela Inteligente, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. Social media and video streaming sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Periscope were blocked during the AN’s January 5 session and also during live speeches made by interim president Guaido throughout the year. In a September 15 televised address, Maduro denounced the news site Monitoreamos.com as an “enemy” and its journalists as “manipulators and bandits.” On September 16, internet service providers blocked access to the site.
Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the illegitimate Maduro regime, and senior regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused of actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.
On August 28, internet providers blocked access to anticensorship tools to prevent health-care workers from accessing the Health Heroes financial assistance program announced by interim president Guaido, according to VE Sin Filtro. The group also found the financial platform used to distribute payments to health workers had been blocked and the illegitimate Maduro regime launched a phishing campaign that redirected users to a malicious site in order to capture their data.
There were no substantiated reports of illegitimate Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy. According to Aula Abierta, there were 151 security incidents, including fires, thefts, threats, and violence directed towards university students, professors, and school property.
The illegitimate Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.
In August 2019 the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulated the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and stated it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers heading universities. On February 27, the TSJ announced a suspension of the ruling. University professors clarified that the suspension only removed the deadline imposed by the TSJ but left in place the changes to electoral process and granted the Ministry of University Education the power to oversee the elections.
On May 8, the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a report that accused the illegitimate Maduro regime of underreporting COVID-19 infections. On May 13, PSUV vice president Diosdado Cabello announced an investigation into the academy and invited regime-aligned security forces to summon the report’s authors. Domestic research institutions and international organizations condemned Cabello’s actions as unacceptable intimidation, and interim president Guaido denounced the attack on the independence and academic freedom of researchers.
The illegitimate regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria, a regime-issued identity and social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation). NGOs and university students denounced the use of the card as a discriminatory policy that politicized the issuance of scholarships and restricted academic freedom.
The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the illegitimate Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. 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 illegitimate regime to criminalize organizations critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support interim president Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) documented 4,414 protests in the first six months of the year, 221 of which were repressed by regime-aligned security forces and armed groups. The OVCS documented 129 detentions, 62 injured, and two deaths during protests. An OHCHR investigation found three cases of torture and a sexual assault of protesters committed on May 20 by regime security forces in Lara State. Media reported a group of armed colectivos attacked protesters and journalists gathered at a protest convened on February 29 by interim president Guaido in Lara State.
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. On May 23, FAES officers arrested Giovanny Meza and four others during a protest in Sucre State to demand water and electricity. Meza, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, had a seizure during his hearing. When the judge ordered a medical examination, doctors found that Meza showed signs of torture, including five broken ribs. Meza was charged with instigation to commit a crime, obstruction of public roads, possession of incendiary objects, and criminal association.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the illegitimate 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, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
A 2016 presidential decree directed the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” the funding was used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the illegitimate Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
In-country Movement: The illegitimate 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 to limit the spread of COVID-19 restricted freedom of movement and suspended social and business activities. The decree authorized regime-aligned security forces broad latitude and discretion to enforce the decree and conduct investigations. Media reported the illegitimate 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 allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures.
On March 17, the illegitimate regime suspended all international travel, although it authorized a number of humanitarian and repatriation flights. On March 16, restrictions were put in place to prevent travel among different states and cities. Many countries experienced severe difficulties in repatriating their citizens due to these restrictions.
Throughout the year high-level regime officials stigmatized returning citizens, blaming them for rising COVID-19 cases and calling them “bioterrorists” and “biological weapons.” On July 15, Maduro called on all citizens to report and apprehend returnees who crossed into the country through unofficial border crossings.
The illegitimate Maduro regime required returnees to spend a mandatory two-week quarantine period at shelters run by the armed forces at the border. Humanitarian organizations and interim government officials reported overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in quarantine shelters that increased the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Returnees held in these facilities suffered from insufficient food, water, electricity, and hygiene items, as well as physical insecurity that put vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, at risk of sexual violence and abuse. A COVID-19 diagnostic test was required for release from the quarantine shelters, but in view of the regime’s limited testing capacity, several returnees were held for as long as one month. Media reported returnees were kept from returning to their regions of origin and threatened by armed groups controlling the shelters not to report the poor conditions.
Media reported regime authorities blocked citizens from returning to the country. On June 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime adopted measures to limit the number of citizens returning to the country through the border with Colombia. Migrants were only allowed to return on three specific days a week, and regime authorities set a limit of 1,200-1,300 returnees weekly through Arauca, Cucuta, and Paraguachon. As of September more than 40,000 citizens waited to cross the border into the country through Cucuta, according to the Organization of American States (OAS) commissioner-general for the Venezuela refugee crisis David Smolansky. NGOs reported citizens unable to return to their country faced uncertain legal and financial statuses and were at high risk of victimization for crime, trafficking, and gender-based violence by criminal armed groups.
Following the illegitimate Maduro regime’s closure of official ports of entry, Venezuelans traveling into and out of the country had no choice but to use informal border crossings (trochas) that largely were controlled by illegal armed groups. While no official statistics were available, activists and NGOs reported citizens utilizing the trochas faced significant risks, such as gender-based violence and human trafficking, including forced labor and sexual servitude at the hands of criminal groups. Smugglers and human traffickers also sent refugees and migrants on dangerous sea journeys. In December at least 21 individuals attempting to flee the country and reach Trinidad and Tobago died when their boat capsized. 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, and sexual violence. Many were vulnerable to recruitment, sometimes forced, into drug trafficking rings or illegal and other armed groups.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Several applicants reportedly paid several thousand U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The illegitimate regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
The illegitimate 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.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: 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, the elderly, 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.
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.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties in achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Illegitimate 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.