Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
Although the government did not release statistics on extrajudicial killings, NGOs reported that national, state, and municipal police entities, as well as the armed forces and government-supported “colectivos,” carried out such killings during the year.
There was also no official information available on the number of public officials prosecuted or sentenced to prison for involvement in extrajudicial killings, which, in the case of killings committed by police, were often classified as “resistance to authority.” The government described antigovernment protesters as terrorists, and the president granted security forces emergency powers to control demonstrations. The NGO Committee for the Families of Victims of February-March 1989 (COFAVIC) continued to report there was no publicly accessible national registry of reported cases of extrajudicial killings.
The National Police Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Corps (CICPC) reportedly committed 30 percent of extrajudicial killings, with others committed by regional and municipal police. According to NGOs, prosecutors occasionally brought cases against such perpetrators, but prosecutions often resulted in light sentences, and convictions were often overturned on appeal. Before her August 5 dismissal, then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz denounced the government’s failure to pursue officers suspected of committing human rights abuses. Ortega and her husband fled the country on August 17.
Government and NGO sources estimated at least 125 persons were killed in antiregime protests from April 1 to July 31. The Public Ministry reported 65 percent were victims of government repression. The NGO Foro Penal put the number at 75 percent, with “colectivos” responsible for half the deaths and the remainder divided between the Venezuelan National Police (PNB) and National Guard (GNB) forces. The Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Action and Education (PROVEA) estimated that 83 percent of regime victims died from gunshot wounds. On numerous occasions, security forces also used nonlethal ammunition at close range, severely injuring and in some cases killing protesters.
According to a Public Ministry investigation, in April a GNB officer shot and killed Juan Pablo Pernalete with a tear gas canister fired at point-blank range. Government and security officials rejected then attorney general Luisa Ortega’s findings and refused to apprehend potential suspects. On September 7, the newly appointed attorney general, Tarek William Saab, stated that this and other cases implicating government forces would be reopened. Saab’s appointment and subsequent decision to reopen investigations conducted during his predecessor’s tenure were widely criticized by local and international NGOs.
Protesters were also responsible for some deaths that occurred during and on the margins of demonstrations. On April 19, a protester in an apartment building threw a frozen water bottle at security forces but missed and killed a passerby.
The government continued its nationwide anticrime strategy begun in 2015, the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), which was characterized by large-scale raids conducted by hundreds of government security agents in neighborhoods allegedly harboring criminals. NGOs documented a number of operations that were carried out without court orders. OLP operations often resulted in civilian deaths; NGOs reported that at least 560 persons were killed as a result of OLP exercises between July 2015 and June, with illegal raids and violent attacks on homes becoming more widespread and far reaching. The Public Ministry reported that security forces killed 241 citizens during OLP exercises in 2016. The victims were largely considered to have been “resisting authority,” and only 17 security officials were formally charged for their involvement. The Public Ministry reported that authorities detained 2,310 persons during OLP operations between July and February 2016. Based on victim testimony, NGOs reported OLP operations were characterized by grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, blackmail, and destruction of personal property.
The Public Ministry continued to investigate the killings of 331 individuals during the 1989 “Caracazo.” In October 2016 the TSJ ruled that the 1988 El Amparo massacre case, in which government security forces allegedly killed 14 persons, would be reopened and tried before a military tribunal. NGOs appealed to the TSJ to hear the case in civilian court, but the TSJ denied their appeal, and the case remained open in military court.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits such practices, there were credible reports security forces tortured and abused detainees.
There were no reports of any government officials being charged under the law that states an agent or public official who inflicts pain or suffering–whether physical or mental–on another individual to obtain information or a confession or seeks to punish an individual for an act the individual has committed, may be imprisoned for a maximum of 25 years, dismissed from office, and barred from holding public office for a maximum of 25 years. Prison and detention center officials who commit torture may face a maximum of five years in prison and a maximum fine of 90.6 million bolivars ($34,300 at the Dicom exchange rate). The law also includes mechanisms for reparations to victims and their families and creates a special National Commission for Torture Prevention composed of several government ministries.
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 that 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.
On July 27, GNB officers arrested protester and musician Wuilly Moises Arteaga during antiregime protests in Caracas. GNB officers repeatedly beat Arteaga, a frequent target for playing the violin, on the head with their helmets, causing him to lose hearing in one ear. They also burned his hair with lighters. An 18-year-old viola player, Armando Canizales, a graduate of the Simon Bolivar Musical Foundation, was shot in the neck at a May 3 protest and died from the wound.
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 where authorities transferred detainees to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, detainees were interrogated by security officials.
On November 4, Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officials released jailed opposition leader Yon Goicoechea 11 months after a judge ordered his release in October 2016 due to insufficient evidence. In April Goicoechea reported being tortured while in SEBIN custody. Goicoechea said he was held in solitary confinement without a toilet or proper ventilation and that the cell was covered in maggots and excrement from previous prisoners. He also reported officials used electric shock and other forms of torture against him.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. 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 government had not updated prison statistics since 2015, and NGOs reported records for detainees were not properly maintained and often contained incomplete information. The Ministry of Penitentiary Services reported there were 50,791 inmates in the country’s 59 prisons and penitentiaries and an estimated 33,000 inmates in police station jails. According to the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP), the capacity was 22,459 inmates for penitentiaries and 5,000 for police station jails. Overcrowding was 154 percent for penitentiaries and 415 percent for police station jails on average, although the 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, with a 150-detainee capacity, and the other in Zulia State, designed for 450. 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 to 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 study by the NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL) of 89 facilities housing 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 that 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 renovation of Guarico State’s central prison, the construction team discovered 14 bodies in a shallow grave. The case remained under investigation but highlighted uncertainty over the true number of annual prison deaths.
During the year prison riots resulted in inmate deaths and injuries. On April 25, at least 14 persons were killed and 15 injured during a riot in Jose Antonio Prison, better known as Puente Ayala, in Anzoategui State. NGOs attributed the prisoner-on-prisoner clash to a gang turf war. There were credible reports that high-ranking government officials may have had a hand in directing the violence.
A 2016 law limiting cellphone and internet availability inside prisons to prevent inmates from using the technology to engage in criminal activity remained unimplemented. A high-level government official admitted communicating with inmates immediately before and during the Puente Ayala riot.
The UVL reported that 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. At least eight prisoners died during the year from complications associated with malnutrition. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition plans and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates.
The government restricted information regarding deaths in prisons from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases or due to 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 accessing prisons and detention centers. Authorities have rejected 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 individual judges and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, COFAVIC, the Institute for Press and Society, Public Space, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, authorities rarely granted them formal platforms to present their petitions. Authorities arbitrarily detained individuals, including foreign citizens, for extended periods without criminal charges.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The GNB–a branch of the military that reports to both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace–is responsible for maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas. The Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace controls the CICPC, which conducts most criminal investigations, and SEBIN, which collects intelligence within the country and abroad, and is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking. SEBIN maintained its own detention facilities separate from those of the Ministry of Penitentiary Services. Police include municipal, state, and national police forces. Mayors and governors oversee municipal and state police forces. The PNB reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’s Libertador municipality; patrolling Caracas-area highways, railways, and metro system; and protecting diplomatic missions. The PNB maintained a minimal presence in seven of the country’s 23 states. The PNB, in coordination with the GNB, took a leading role in repressing antigovernment protests between April 1 and July 31.
Corruption, inadequate police training and equipment, and insufficient central government funding, particularly for police forces in states and municipalities governed by opposition officials, reduced the effectiveness of the security forces. There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, including illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and the excessive use of force.
Impunity remained a serious problem in the security forces. The Public Ministry is responsible for initiating judicial investigations of security force abuses. The Office of Fundamental Rights in the Public Ministry is responsible for investigating cases involving crimes committed by public officials, particularly security officials.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2016 annual report, the Office of Fundamental Rights cited 13,343 specific actions taken to “process claims” against police authorities for human rights abuses and charged 320 with violations. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not provide information regarding alleged human rights violations committed by police and military personnel, nor did the Attorney General’s Office release data.
State and municipal governments also investigated their respective police forces. By law, the national, state, and municipal police forces have a police corps disciplinary council that takes action against security officials who commit abuses. The National Assembly also may investigate security force abuses.
During the year the government at both the local and national levels took few actions to sanction officers involved in abuses. According to the NGO Network of Support for Justice and Peace, the lack of sufficient prosecutors made it difficult to prosecute police and military officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses. In addition, NGOs reported the following problems contributed to an ineffective judicial system: long procedural delays, poor court administration and organization, lack of transparency in investigations, and impunity of government officials. On June 15, Human Rights Watch reported that then attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz had opened investigations in more than 600 cases of injury caused during the protests that began in April. In at least 10 cases, her office charged security forces with unlawful killings of demonstrators or bystanders. After her removal, her successor did not pursue the cases.
The National Experimental University for Security (UNES), tasked with professionalizing law enforcement training for the PNB and other state and municipal personnel, had centers in Caracas and five other cities. UNES requires human rights training as part of the curriculum for all new officers joining the PNB, state, and municipal police forces. Members of the PNB and state and municipal police also enrolled for continuing education and higher-learning opportunities as part of the Special Plan of Police Professionalization at UNES.
Societal violence was high and continued to increase. In the absence of official data, media outlets compiled violent death statistics using information from hospitals and morgues. According to media reports, there were at least 5,486 homicides in the first quarter of the year. The NGO Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) reported approximately 28,479 homicides, a rate of 91.8 per 100,000 residents in 2016, while the Public Ministry cited 21,752 violent deaths. NGOs and police noted that many victims did not report kidnappings to police or other authorities due to fear of retribution or lack of confidence in the police and that the actual occurrence was likely far higher.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
While a warrant is required for an arrest, detention is permitted without an arrest warrant when an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime or to secure a suspect or witness during an investigation. Police often detained individuals without a warrant. The law mandates that detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 12 hours and before a judge within 48 hours to determine the legality of the detention; the law also requires detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them. Authorities routinely ignored these requirements.
Although the law provides for bail, it is not available for certain crimes. Bail also may be denied if a person is apprehended in the act of committing a crime or if a judge determines the accused may flee or impede the investigation. The law allows detainees access to counsel and family members, but that requirement was often not met, particularly for political prisoners. The constitution also provides any detained individual the right to immediate communication with family members and lawyers who, in turn, have the right to know a detainee’s whereabouts. A person accused of a crime may not be detained for longer than the possible minimum sentence for that crime or for longer than two years, whichever is shorter, except in certain circumstances, such as when the defendant is responsible for the delay in the proceedings.
Arbitrary Arrest: Foro Penal reported 5,462 protest-related cases of arbitrary detention between April 1 and December 31.
Several cases remained pending related to a series of arbitrary detentions the government carried out against opposition activists in the weeks before a planned opposition rally in September 2016. On May 24, authorities released independent journalist Braulio Jatar to house arrest after he had served eight months in SEBIN custody for reporting on an impromptu protest against President Maduro; a date for his next hearing had not been set by year’s end.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention remained an egregious problem. According to the OVP, approximately 79 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. According to the Public Ministry, in 2016 only 21 percent of trials concluded or reached sentencing. The NGO Citizen Observatory of the Penal Justice System attributed trial delays to the shortage of prosecutors and penal judges (4.7 penal judges per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, the latest date for which information was available).
Despite constitutional protections guaranteeing timely trials, judges reportedly scheduled initial hearings months after the events giving rise to the cause of action. An automated scheduling system was ineffective at streamlining case logistics. Proceedings were often deferred or suspended when an officer of the court, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, failed to attend.
According to the Public Ministry’s 2015 annual report, the ministry pressed charges in 9.7 percent of the 556,000 cases involving common crimes. The ministry reported the closure of the remainder of the complaints but did not indicate final outcomes. Prisoners reported to NGOs that a lack of transportation and disorganization in the prison system reduced their access to the courts and contributed to trial delays.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detained individuals may challenge the grounds for their detention, but proceedings were often delayed, and hearings were postponed, stretching trials for years. Courts frequently disregarded defendants’ presumption of innocence. Authorities often failed to allow detainees to consult with counsel or to access their case records when filing challenges. Some detainees remained on probation or under house arrest indefinitely.
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 government generally did not respect these prohibitions. In some cases, government authorities searched homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seized property without due process, or interfered in personal communications. From April to October, government-sponsored raids on private property increasingly targeted opposition-controlled areas.
On May 22, more than 100 security officers invaded an apartment complex in Miranda State, allegedly in search of terrorists. Residents reported that masked officers using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weapons destroyed the building’s security cameras and went door to door, threatening to kill anyone who did not grant them access. The officers interrogated residents about protest activity, stole valuables, damaged vehicles, and physically assaulted several residents.
The 60-day “states of exception” first declared by President Maduro in 2015 continued in 23 municipalities bordering Colombia in Zulia, Tachira, Apure, and Amazonas States, thereby suspending the constitutional requirement for authorities to obtain a court order prior to entering a private residence or violating the secrecy of a person’s private communications, among other constitutional rights.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Some officials explicitly acknowledged corruption as a major problem. The government frequently investigated, prosecuted, and detained political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them.
Corruption: In July then attorney general Luisa Ortega released a Public Ministry investigation report that at least a dozen high-ranking officials and their relatives received bribes in exchange for contracts with the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. Ortega said the government paid approximately 30 billion dollars for 20 infrastructure projects that were never finished. Ortega also claimed that Odebrecht provided campaign funding to politicians. On September 7, the newly appointed attorney general, Tarek William Saab, announced that the Public Ministry would not pursue investigations into Odebrecht infrastructure projects, including allegations that President Maduro was involved.
According to Transparency International, the main reasons for the country’s widespread corruption were the government’s anticorruption program, impunity, weak institutions, and lack of transparency in the management of government resources.
Corruption was a major problem in all police forces, whose members were generally poorly paid and minimally trained. There was no information publicly available about 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.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials, as well as all directors and members of the boards of private companies, to submit sworn financial disclosure statements. By law, the Public Ministry and competent criminal courts may require such statements from any other persons when circumstantial evidence arises during an investigation.