Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, there were credible reports that security forces tortured and abused detainees. There were no reports of any government officials being charged under the law.
The 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 government continued to influence the attorney general and public defenders to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No data was 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.
Press and NGO reports of beatings and humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies and the military. Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners were reported during the year. Cruel treatment frequently involved authorities denying prisoners medical care and holding them for long periods in solitary confinement. The latter practice was most prevalent with political prisoners. NGOs also published reports that authorities generally mistreated, sexually abused, and threatened to kill detainees.
NGOs detailed reports from detainees whom authorities allegedly sexually abused, threatened with death, and forced to spend hours on their knees in detention centers. Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in government custody. Foro Penal noted instances in which authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, detainees were interrogated by security officials. The executive director of the Casla Institute for the Study of Latin America, Tamara Suju, and human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Gutierrez denounced 357 cases of physical abuse, alleged torture, and violence by security forces against political prisoners before the International Criminal Court. Among the 357 cases, there were 190 allegations of rape or sexual abuse.
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. Armed gangs effectively controlled some prisons in which they were incarcerated. Conditions were most acute in pretrial detention facilities such as police station jails.
Physical Conditions: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services reported there were 51,693 inmates in the country’s 41 prisons and penitentiaries and an estimated 33,000 inmates in police station jails in 2017. NGOs reported records for detainees were not properly maintained and often contained incomplete information. According to the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL), the capacity was approximately 19,000 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for 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.
There were two women’s prisons, one in Miranda State and the other in Zulia State. The law stipulates women in mixed prisons must be held in annexes or separate women’s blocks. A local NGO reported that in practice male and female prisoners intermingled. Security forces and law enforcement authorities often held minors together with adults, even though 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 police station jails and detention centers also were overcrowded, causing many police station offices to be converted into makeshift prison cells. Prisoners reportedly took turns sleeping on floors and in office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. A 2017 UVL study of 89 facilities holding pretrial detainees revealed 432 percent overcrowding. According to the study, more than 80 percent of facilities provided no medical services, recreational areas, designated visiting areas, or laundry facilities. More than 60 percent did not have potable water, and more than 50 percent did not have regular trash collection or proper restrooms.
The GNB and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace have responsibility for prisons’ exterior and interior security, respectively. The government failed to provide adequate prison security. The OVP estimated a staffing gap of 90 percent for prison security personnel, with only one guard for every 100 inmates, instead of one for every 10 as recommended by international standards. The OVP reported 173 prisoner deaths and 268 serious injuries in 2016, the most recent year for which information was available. The OVP assessed that 90 percent of prison deaths were violent, resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner altercations, riots, and fires. The OVP reported some inmates also succumbed to the generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions prevalent in prisons. During the March 2017 renovation of Guarico State’s central prison, the construction team discovered 14 bodies in a shallow grave. The case remained under investigation at year’s end but highlighted uncertainty over the true number of annual prison deaths.
During the year prison and detention center riots resulted in inmate deaths and injuries. For example, on March 28, a fire erupted in an overcrowded police station in Valencia, Carabobo State, killing 66 male prisoners and two female visitors; more than 100 persons received burns in the fire. Media reported that after an argument with a guard, a group of prisoners lit their bed linens on fire. Many NGOs called the fire a massacre, noting some prisoners died from the fire itself, while others died of physical trauma or gunshot wounds.
A 2016 law limiting cell phone and internet availability inside prisons to prevent inmates from using the technology to engage in criminal activity remained unimplemented. Minister of Penitentiary Affairs Iris Varela admitted communicating with inmates by cell phone immediately before and during the 2017 Puente Ayala prison riot. There were credible reports that Varela may have had a hand in directing the violence, including her own admission to that effect during a media interview.
The UVL reported authorities required family members to provide food for prisoners at police station jails throughout the country due to inadequate provisioning of food by the prison administration. According to a UVL report, in 2017 at least 28 inmates died from complications associated with malnutrition and preventable disease such as tuberculosis. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition plans and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates.
On February 24, Vista Hermosa prison inmate Alejandro Manuel Mago Coraspe was admitted into a local Bolivar state hospital after he fell ill, apparently from eating poisoned rodents. Vista Hermosa prisoners customarily ate wild birds and rodents to survive, according to Mago Coraspe. After undergoing surgery, he explained to journalists that he customarily killed and cooked rats but had most recently eaten rats he found in the prison garbage that were potentially poisoned. According to reports from Mago Coraspe’s family, prison guards beat him severely upon his return to the prison, allegedly for having spoken to media members. According to media reports, a judge ordered Mago Coraspe to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. Prison authorities disregarded the order, and Mago Coraspe died in prison on April 24.
The government restricted information regarding deaths in prisons from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases or from lack of medical care. A study by the NGO Solidarity Action found prison rules regarding the classification of inmates 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 their medical attention.
Administration: The 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 or violent uprisings.
Prisoners and detainees generally had access to visitors, including some with overnight privileges, but in some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. Prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits to political prisoners. When allowed access, visitors were at times subjected to strip searches.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers continued to experience lengthy delays and restrictions in gaining access to prisons and detention centers. Authorities had not approved requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit penitentiary centers and interview inmates in confidentiality since 2013. 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.
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. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, COFAVIC, the Institute for Press and Society, Espacio Publico, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, authorities rarely granted them formal means to present their petitions. Authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The GNB–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the CICPC, which conducts most criminal investigations, and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), which collects intelligence within the country and abroad, and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. SEBIN maintained its own detention facilities separate from those of the Ministry of Penitentiary Services. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The PNB reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states.
Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force.
Impunity remained a serious problem in the security forces. The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office of Fundamental Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2016 annual report (the most recent one available), the Office of Fundamental Rights cited 13,343 specific actions taken to “process claims” against police authorities for human rights abuses and charged 320 with violations. Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman provided information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel.
State and municipal governments also investigated their respective police forces. By law the national, state, and municipal police forces have a police corps disciplinary council that takes action against security officials who commit abuses. The National Assembly also may investigate security force abuses.
The government at both the local and national levels took few actions to sanction officers involved in abuses. According to the NGO Network of Support for Justice and Peace, the lack of sufficient prosecutors made it difficult to prosecute police and military officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses. In addition NGOs reported the following problems contributed to an ineffective judicial system: long procedural delays, poor court administration and organization, lack of transparency in investigations, and impunity of government officials. In June 2017 Human Rights Watch reported the then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz had opened investigations in more than 600 cases of injury caused during the protests that began in April 2017. In at least 10 cases, her office charged security forces with unlawful killings of demonstrators or bystanders. After her removal, her successor did not pursue the cases.
NGOs and police noted that many victims did not report violent crimes to police or other authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in the police and that the actual occurrence was likely far higher than what was reported.
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 without a warrant. The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention; the law also requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. Authorities routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, it is not available for certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 498 cases of arbitrary detention between January 1 and November 15, compared with 5,462 protest-related cases of arbitrary detention from April through December 2017. Opposition politicians and human rights NGOs attributed the reduction largely to a significant decrease in large-scale protests following National Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections in July 2017.
Caracas municipal councilmember Fernando Alban died on October 8 while in SEBIN custody. SEBIN officials had arrested Alban upon his return from a foreign trip on October 5 and held him in detention as a suspect in the August 4 drone attack believed to have been a presidential assassination attempt. Attorney General Tarek William Saab reported via social media and press statements that Alban jumped from a 10th-floor bathroom window, while Minister of Interior Nestor Reverol stated Alban jumped from a 10th-floor waiting room. NGOs and members of the opposition denounced these conflicting stories and alleged Alban was murdered.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the OVP, approximately 79 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. According to the Public Ministry, in 2016 only 21 percent of trials concluded or reached sentencing. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges (4.7 penal judges per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, the latest date for which information was available).
Despite constitutional protections that provide for timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events giving rise to the cause of action. An automated scheduling system was ineffective at streamlining case logistics. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2015 annual report (the most recent available), the ministry pressed charges in 9.7 percent of the 556,000 cases involving common crimes. The ministry reported the closure of the remainder of the complaints but did not indicate final outcomes. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed and hearings postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. 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.