Venezuela is formally a multiparty, constitutional republic, but for more than a decade, political power has been concentrated in a single party with an increasingly authoritarian executive exercising significant control over the legislative, judicial, citizen, and electoral branches of government. Nicolas Maduro won the presidency in 2013 by a 1.5-percent margin amid allegations of pre- and post-election fraud, including government interference, the use of state resources by the ruling party, and voter manipulation. The opposition won in a landslide control of the National Assembly in the December 2015 legislative elections, but the executive branch exercised extensive influence over the judiciary to secure favorable decisions from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice that undermined the National Assembly’s autonomy, ignored the separation of powers, and enabled the president to govern through a series of emergency decrees. The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) subsequently thwarted opposition efforts to recall the President under terms laid out by the constitution, and gubernatorial elections slated for December 2016 were summarily postponed.
Civilian authorities maintained effective, though politicized, control over the security forces.
Principal human rights abuses reported during the year included systematic, politicized use of the judiciary to undermine legislative branch action, and intimidate and selectively prosecute critics; indiscriminate police action against civilians leading to widespread arbitrary detentions, unlawful deprivation of life, and torture; and government curtailment of freedom of expression and of the press. The government arrested and imprisoned opposition figures and showed little respect for judicial independence or generally did not permit judges to act according to the law without fear of retaliation. At times the government blocked media outlets and harassed and intimidated privately owned television stations, other media outlets, and journalists throughout the year using threats, fines, property seizures, arrests, criminal investigations, and prosecutions.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and government agencies reported extrajudicial killings by police and security forces; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions and lack of due process rights that contributed to widespread violence, riots, injuries, and deaths in prisons; inadequate juvenile detention centers; corruption and impunity in the police; arbitrary arrests and detentions; abuse of political prisoners; interference with privacy rights; lack of government respect for freedom of assembly; lack of protection for Colombian migrants; corruption at all levels of government; threats against domestic NGOs; violence against women; employment discrimination based on political preference; and restrictions on workers’ right of association.
The government sometimes took steps to punish lower-ranking government officials who committed abuses, but there were few investigations or prosecutions of senior government officials. Impunity remained a serious concern in the security forces.
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 paramilitary groups, known as “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 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.
COFAVIC reported that in 2015 there were 1,396 alleged extrajudicial killings committed by members of security forces, a 37-percent increase over 2014. The national police Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Corps (CICPC) reportedly committed 30 percent of the acts, 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 often were overturned on appeal.
COFAVIC reported cases in all 23 states and the national capital district of what it defined as extrajudicial killings committed by elements within local and state police forces. COFAVIC reported these elements systematically and arbitrarily detained and killed individuals (mainly young men from lower social classes) without any recourse to proper investigation by the government.
The government continued its nationwide anticrime strategy begun in 2015, the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People (OLP), characterized by large-scale raids conducted by hundreds of government security agents in neighborhoods allegedly harboring criminals. These operations often resulted in the deaths of suspected criminals. The NGO Venezuela Program for Education/Action on Human Rights (PROVEA) reported that 245 persons were killed during OLP security exercises in 2015.
The government continued to prosecute individuals connected with the 1989 killings in Caracas known as the “Caracazo,” in which the Public Ministry estimated 331 individuals died, and the 1988 El Amparo massacre, in which government security forces allegedly killed 14 persons.
On November 27, the state prosecutor stated the government would charge 11 members of the military for responsibility in the death of 12 civilians following a security raid in October in the coastal state of Miranda. The Defense Ministry declared that it condemned the deaths, as did the National Assembly in a rare, unanimous resolution.
There were no substantiated reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution states no person shall be subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, 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 53.5 million bolivars (BsF) ($5.3 million at the official rate, or $80,666 at the secondary Dicom exchange rate as of December 1). 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 and the Public Ministry did not publish statistics regarding allegations of torture by police during the year. Several NGOs detailed cases of widespread torture and “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.” The Venezuelan NGO Foro Penal documented more than 138 cases of torture in the country between February 2014 and May 2015. Foro Penal maintained that hundreds of cases were not reported to government institutions because of victims’ fear of reprisal. NGOs detailed reports from detainees whom authorities allegedly sexually abused, threatened with death, and forced to spend hours on their knees in detention centers.
Human rights groups reported that the government continued to influence the prosecutor general and the public defender to conduct investigations selectively and subjectively. No data was available on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions in cases of alleged torture.
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. Two common methods of cruel treatment were the denial of medical care by prison authorities and the remanding of prisoners to long periods in solitary confinement. In the case of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, family members stated that prison authorities held him in solitary confinement for much of his imprisonment, subjected him to strip searches multiple times daily, denied him visitation rights, and occasionally deprived him of reading and writing material. Prison officials also subjected visiting family members to humiliating strip searches.
The NGO Foro Penal reported multiple instances of political prisoners denied adequate medical treatment while in government custody. Foro Penal noted instances where detainees were transferred to a medical facility, where instead of receiving treatment, they were interrogated by security officials.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Most prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to insufficient numbers of staff, who were also poorly trained and allegedly corrupt; weak security; deteriorating infrastructure; severe overcrowding; lack of adequate medical care; and shortages of food and potable water. Armed gangs effectively controlled some prisons in which they were incarcerated.
Physical Conditions: The Ministry of Penitentiary Services reported there were 50,791 inmates in the country’s 58 prisons and penitentiaries and an estimated of 33,000 inmates in police station jails. According to the NGO Venezuelan Observatory for Prisons (OVP), the capacity for penitentiaries was 22,459 inmates, and for police station jails, the capacity was for 5,000 inmates. Overcrowding was 126 percent for penitentiaries and 560 percent for police station jails on average, although the OVP noted that in some jails the overcrowding ranged from 800 to 1,200 percent.
According to OVP reports, records for detainees were not properly maintained and often featured incomplete information. Official figures taken from the Penitentiary Services Ministry’s 2015 annual report estimated 31,503 pretrial detainees and 17,374 convicted prisoners were held in the same facilities. Authorities assigned another 265 individuals to work detachment programs and held 522 individuals in police station facilities not fit to serve as detention centers. Women (2,629 inmates) and men (48,162 inmates) generally were held in separate prison facilities. There was only one penitentiary exclusively for women, and female prisoners in other detention centers were held in annexes or separate women’s departments in otherwise male-only prisons. 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 office chairs, and sanitation facilities were inadequate or nonexistent. In the temporary detention facility in the downtown Caracas Zona 7 police station, a reported 700 detainees awaiting transport to prisons were held in a facility built for 70. On January 21, Mayor Ramon Muchacho of the Caracas municipality of Chacao declared that Chacao Police Department detention centers were operating at 300 percent of capacity, and temporary facilities were being used for long-term detention due to the lack of space in national penitentiaries. Muchacho highlighted that temporary detention centers lacked the infrastructure and security conditions to handle long-term imprisonment, and that overcrowding limited the fundamental rights for prisoners to receive visitors and legal counsel.
The National Guard 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 every 10 as recommended by international standards. The OVP reported 309 prisoner deaths and 1,709 serious injuries in 2014. Most deaths and injuries resulted from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, riots, fires, and generally unsanitary and unsafe conditions. On August 3, seven prisoners at Alayon prison in Maracay died and approximately 60 individuals, three of them police officers, were severely injured when subjects riding motorcycles threw five grenades into the facility. The media reported that after the incident an undetermined number of inmates escaped from the prison.
During the year numerous prison riots resulted in inmate deaths and injuries. On January 11, 50 inmates took 40 persons hostage, including prison guards and staff and visiting family members, in Coro Penitentiary while protesting against food shortages and inadequate health care. The riot lasted for 55 hours and led to 11 injuries, 10 of them prison guards. On August 10, gangs rioted at the San Felix police station jail, leaving two inmates dead and 11 injured. Gang-related violence and alleged extortion by guards and inmates was fueled by trafficking in arms and drugs. NGOs, human rights lawyers, and the press frequently claimed prison gang leaders, rather than government authorities, controlled the penitentiaries and were able to lead organized crime networks based outside the prison system.
On July 15, a new law came into effect limiting cellphone and internet availability inside prisons to prevent inmates from using the technology to engage in criminal activity. The law was not implemented, however; inmates threatened a “full-scale war” if the government limited their ability to communicate.
The NGO A Window to Liberty (UVL) reported that authorities asked family members to provide nonperishable foods to prisoners at police station jails and the Fenix, Rodeo I, Rodeo II, Rodeo III, Yare III, and National Institute of Feminine Orientation penitentiaries due to inadequate provisioning of food by the prison administration. Lack of potable and running water in the 26 de Julio penitentiary led to gastrointestinal and skin diseases for large portions of the inmate population and prison staff.
The government restricted information regarding deaths in prisons from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases, or 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, and reportedly inmates often received the same pills regardless of their symptoms. The OVP reported that due to inadequate nutrition plans and lack of potable water, stomach illnesses were common among inmates. According to the OVP, pregnant women lacked adequate facilities for their medical attention.
Administration: The government’s recordkeeping on prisoners was inadequate. Prison authorities did not maintain accurate counts of inmates. According to press reports, the most recent accurate daily counts at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela and the La Planta Penitentiary occurred in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
The National Assembly released a report in May evaluating the use of funds by Minister Varela, noting that the Prisons Ministry had built only two new penitentiaries of 24 planned since 2012. In addition, the ministry’s 2015 annual report indicated that the budget for prisons, managed by the National Penitentiaries Fund (FONEP), had been reduced by 86 percent from 2013 to 2015.
The Ministry of Penitentiary Services did not respond to any of the requests it received 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, but in some cases prison officials harassed or abused visitors. Prison officials imposed significant restrictions on visits to political prisoners. The family of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez denounced mistreatment by prison guards when attempting to visit him in the Ramo Verde Military Prison, including being subjected to strip searches on both entry and exit from the facility.
Independent Monitoring: Human rights observers continued to experience lengthy delays and restrictions in accessing prisons and detention centers. Requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit penitentiary centers and interview inmates in confidentiality have been rejected 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.
Improvements: In February the Ministry of Penitentiary Services announced closure of the San Antonio Prison in Nueva Esparta after a series of videos were released on social media showing inmates firing weapons to commemorate the death of prison gang leader “El Conejo,” who was killed on January 24. Authorities moved 1,828 prisoners to other government penitentiaries. The ministry implemented educational programs for inmates, although reports from an NGO claimed enrollment was low.
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. While NGOs such as Foro Penal, COFAVIC, the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), Public Space, and PROVEA noted at least 2,000 open cases of arbitrary detentions, authorities rarely granted them formal platforms to present their petitions. Multiple individuals, including American citizens, were arbitrarily detained for extended periods without criminal charges.
In the weeks before a planned opposition rally on September 1, the government initiated a series of arbitrary detentions targeting opposition activists. On August 29, security forces arrested former student leader Yon Goicoechea for allegedly carrying explosives. Authorities held Goicoechea incommunicado for almost three days, and as of December 22, he remained in custody on politically motivated charges.
On September 3, independent journalist Braulio Jatar, a dual Venezuelan-Chilean citizen, was detained by Venezuelan authorities after reporting on an impromptu protest against President Maduro in Villa Rosa, Margarita Island. Jatar was charged with money laundering by a Venezuelan court, and as of December 22, he remained in the custody of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN).
On September 19, SEBIN agents arrested Marco Trejo, Cesar Cuellar, and James Mathison without a warrant for producing a short video denouncing military repression. The government alleged the individuals committed a military offense because the video featured actors in military uniforms and charged the three under the military’s code of conduct.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Bolivarian National Guard (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 is responsible for investigating cases of corruption, subversion, and arms trafficking while maintaining 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 Bolivarian National Police (PNB) reports to the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace and had a reported 14,500 officers. According to its website, the PNB largely focused on policing Caracas’ 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 annual report for 2015, the Office of Fundamental Rights cited 13,911 specific actions taken to “process claims” against police authorities for human rights abuses and charged 959 with violations. The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman did not provide information regarding 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, national, state, and municipal police forces have a police corps disciplinary council, which 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.
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 remained high and continued to increase. The Public Ministry reported 19,453 homicides in 2015, a rate of 63.5 per 100,000 residents. The NGO Venezuelan Observatory of Violence estimated the rate to be higher, with 27,875 homicides, a rate of 90 per 100,000 residents. Criminal kidnappings for ransom were widespread in both urban centers and rural areas. Kidnappings included both “express kidnappings,” in which victims were held for several hours and then released, and traditional kidnappings. The Public Ministry reported 793 cases of kidnapping or extortion in 2015. NGOs and police noted 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 there is a functioning system of 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 there is a danger 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 5,853 cases of arbitrary detention between February 2014 and June 2016. Persons so detained claimed security personnel subjected them to inhuman and degrading treatment and in some cases torture.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was a serious problem. According to the OVP, approximately 79 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. According to the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), only 17 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 Public Ministry’s 2015 annual report stated it had 346 prosecutors specializing in common crimes who processed more than 556,613 cases during the year.
Cases were often deferred or suspended when pertinent parties, such as the prosecutor, public defender, or judge, were absent. An automated scheduling calendar in use since 2013, which selected dates based on the availability of all pertinent parties and prohibited judges from scheduling more than 10 hearings per day, did not reduce the backlog. In some instances judges scheduled hearings six months from the start of the case.
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.
On April 11, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an amnesty law the National Assembly passed in March, which would have provided a framework to release political prisoners.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Individuals under detention may legally challenge grounds for their detention, but the processes were often delayed or tabled, and hearings were postponed, stretching trials for years. On many occasions the right to be judged in liberty for some offenders was not granted, and detainees were not allowed to consult with an attorney or to have access to their case records in order to challenge the detention. There are credible accounts that some detainees were placed on probation or under house arrest indefinitely and thus prevented from challenging their status by the threat of being sent back to detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, there was significant evidence the judiciary lacked independence. There were credible allegations of corruption and political influence throughout the judiciary. According to reports from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), between 66 and 80 percent of all judges had provisional appointments, and the TSJ Judicial Committee could remove them from office at will. Provisional and temporary judges, who legally have the same rights and authorities as permanent judges, allegedly were subject to political influence from the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace and the attorney general to make progovernment determinations. The ICJ reported a lack of transparency and stability in the assignments of district attorneys to cases and the lack of technical criteria to assign 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 human rights violation cases.
Defendants are to be considered innocent until proven guilty. The law requires that detainees be informed promptly of the charges against them, and the requirement was generally respected, although in high-profile cases the charges were often dubious, according to international human rights organizations. The law provides for open, public, and fair trials with oral proceedings for all individuals. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney. Public defenders are provided for indigent defendants, but there continued to be a shortage of such attorneys. Defendants are not provided free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals. According to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, there were approximately 1,500 public defenders. COFAVIC and Foro Penal noted that the government pressured defendants in trials related to the 2014 student protests into utilizing public defenders instead of private defense attorneys with the promise of receiving more-favorable sentences. Additionally, several NGOs provided pro bono counsel to defendants.
While defendants and their attorneys have the right to access government-held evidence, access often was not allowed; in some instances, particularly in politically motivated cases, the court or prosecution did not allow defendants or their attorneys to access such information. 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 law extends these rights to all defendants.
Trial delays were common. Trials “in absentia” are permitted in certain circumstances, although opponents of them claimed the constitution prohibits such trials. The law also states a trial may proceed in the absence of the defense attorney, with a public defender that the court designates. The law gives judges the discretion to hold trials behind closed doors if a public trial could “disturb the normal development of the trial.”
At the September 28 hearing of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, witnesses refused to appear for the prosecution. The legal situation of Afiuni, accused of corruption and abuse of authority for her 2009 decision to conditionally release on limits, remained unresolved. Afiuni continued to be subject to protective measures in place since her release to house arrest in 2011 that mandate she may not leave the country, talk to the media, or use social media, although the law states that such measures may not last more than two years.
The law mandates municipal courts to handle “less serious” crimes, i.e., those carrying maximum penalties of imprisonment for less than eight years. Municipal courts may levy penalties that include three to eight months of community service. Besides diverting some “less serious” crimes to the municipal courts, this diversion also permits individuals accused of “lesser crimes” to ask the courts to suspend their trials conditionally in exchange for their admission of responsibility, commitment to provide restitution “in a material or symbolic form,” community service, and any other condition imposed by the court.
The law provides that trials for military personnel charged with human rights abuses after 1999 be held in civilian rather than military courts. In addition, under the Organic Code of Military Justice, an individual may be tried in the military justice system for “insulting, offending, or disparaging the national armed forces or any related entities.” NGOs expressed concern with the government’s practice of trying civilians under the military justice system for protests and other actions not under military jurisdiction.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
The government used the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute individuals critical of government policies or actions. The NGO Foro Penal reported that more than 100 political prisoners remained incarcerated as of November. An additional 1,998 individuals were subject to either restricted movement or precautionary measures. In late August security forces detained numerous political activists in the days preceding antiregime demonstration on September 1.
In some cases political prisoners were held in SEBIN installations or the Ramo Verde military prison without an explanation of why they were not being held in traditional facilities. Authorities have denied the ICRC access to these prisoners since 2013.
On June 19, National Guardsmen arrested opposition party (Voluntad Popular) activists Gabriel San Miguel and others at a highway checkpoint in Cojedes State. The men were carrying pro-opposition pamphlets and approximately $3,000 worth of local currency and were traveling to help collect signatures as part of the recall referendum petition drive. SEBIN held the two men in solitary confinement and reportedly interrogated them without legal counsel present. Cojedes Governor Erika Farias accused them of carrying money “to pay mercenaries of destabilization” and blamed them for lootings at local supermarkets. On June 22, authorities charged them with “inciting violence” and money laundering, which could carry a prison sentence of more than 15 years. Authorities released San Miguel, a Spanish-Venezuelan dual national, on September 9 and dropped all charges; the other person, a U.S.-Venezuelan dual national, was released October 18.
Metropolitan Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, arrested in February 2015, remained under house arrest while awaiting trial for alleged participation in a conspiracy to topple the government.
On August 12, a Caracas appeals court upheld the September 2015 conviction of Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) party leader and former Caracas Chacao municipality mayor Leopoldo Lopez on four counts of public incitement, damage to property, fire damage, and association for conspiracy, in a trial that began in 2014. Lopez continued serving a maximum sentence of 13 years and nine months in prison in Ramo Verde Military Prison, where he was held in solitary confinement. The court also denied the appeals of codefendants Christian Holdack and Marco Coello. During the appeal proceedings, as during the previous trial, court officials refused defense lawyers’ requests to allow the media to cover the proceedings and denied admission to international observers.
On August 27, SEBIN agents transferred former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos from house arrest back to prison, alleging that he had been planning to engage in “destabilizing acts” during a September 1 political demonstration. Authorities had remanded Ceballos to house arrest in August 2015. He continued to await trial on charges of civil rebellion dating to 2014 protests, charges that carry a maximum sentence of 25 years.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
While there are separate civil courts that permit citizens to bring lawsuits seeking damages, there are no procedures for individuals or organizations to seek civil remedies for human rights violations.
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 infringed on citizens’ privacy rights by searching homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, seizing property without due process, or interfering in personal communications.
Beginning in August 2015, President Maduro declared 60-day “states of exception” 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. These states of exception continued throughout the year.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by government officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Some government officials explicitly acknowledged impunity for corruption as a major problem. The government frequently investigated and prosecuted its political opponents on corruption charges to harass, intimidate, or imprison them. The Public Ministry cited numerous examples of investigations, stemming largely from improprieties in the distribution and sale of price-controlled items and in government currency allocations.
Corruption: The government continued a campaign to combat corruption through fast-track authority and executive powers, but critics contended the government’s efforts focused only on low- to mid-level public officials while targeting high-level opposition politicians. The campaign included enforcement against smuggling of goods carried out by private citizens as part of what the government calls the fight against the “economic war” waged by the political opposition and foreign governments. According to the NGO Transparency Venezuela, weak government institutions and a lack of transparency allowed public officials at all levels to participate in corrupt activity with impunity. The National Assembly conducted its own corruption investigations, including against Rafael Ramirez, former head of PDVSA and current Venezuela Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Although well- publicized, these activities yielded no results.
On August 17, a court sentenced two executives of the state-owned airline Conviasa to four and one-half years in prison for their involvement in an overpricing scheme.
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.
In a June 14 report, Transparency Venezuela criticized the widespread practice of nepotism in the government and cited the example of Controller General Manuel Gallindo, who employed at least 13 close family members in his office.
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. In 2015 (the most recent data available) the Public Ministry cited 19,562 complaints or grievances of corruption, leading to charges against 4,119 individuals.
Public Access to Information: Although the law provides for public access to government information, human rights groups reported the government routinely ignored this requirement. The law requires a government agency to respond to a petition within 20 days of filing. The agency must also notify the applicant within five days of any missing information needed to process the request. Government agencies are subject to sanctions if they do not respond to a request. If the agency rejects the petition, an individual may file another petition or appeal to a higher level within the government agency. The agency must respond to the appeal within 15 days. The Pro Access Coalition, composed of NGOs advocating for the right to access public information, released a study in 2013 noting the government ignored 94 percent of citizen petitions for information, a trend cited as continuing during the year.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions. Major domestic human rights NGOs conducted investigations and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were not cooperative or responsive to their requests. Some domestic NGOs reported government threats and harassment against their leaders, staff, and organizations, in addition to government raids and detentions, but were able to publish dozens of reports during the year. NGOs played a significant role in informing citizens and the international community about alleged violations and key human rights cases.
NGOs asserted the government created a dangerous atmosphere for them to operate. PSUV First Vice President Diosdado Cabello used his weekly talk show to intimidate members of NGOs, including Public Space, PROVEA, and Foro Penal. Several organizations, such as the OVP, PROVEA, Foro Penal, and Citizen Control, reported threats to their staff, conducted electronically or sometimes in person. Human rights organizations claimed they were subject to frequent internet hacking attacks and attempts to violate their e-mail privacy.
The law prohibits domestic NGOs from receiving funds from abroad if they have a “political intent”–defined as those that “promote, disseminate, inform, or defend the full exercise of the political rights of citizens”–or that seek to “defend political rights.” The government threatened NGOs with criminal investigations for allegedly illegally accepting foreign funds. Various government officials accused human rights organizations on national television and media of breaking the law by receiving funding from international donors.
For violations, the law stipulates monetary penalties, a potential five- to eight-year disqualification from running for political office, or both. The law defines political organizations as those involved in promoting citizen participation, exercising control over public offices, and promoting candidates for public office. Although there was no formal application or enforcement of the law, it created a climate of fear among human rights NGOs and a hesitancy to seek international assistance.
In addition to the restrictions placed on fund raising, domestic NGOs also faced regulatory limitations on their ability to perform their missions. The law includes provisions eliminating the right of human rights NGOs to represent victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings. The law provides that only the public defender and private individuals may file complaints in court or represent victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by public employees or members of the security forces.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government was generally hostile toward international human rights bodies and continued to refuse to permit a visit by the IACHR, which had not visited the country since 2002. The government withdrew from the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights in 2013, but the IACHR continues to receive complaints from citizens and civil society. The government also refused to grant access to the OHCHR to investigate the human rights situation. The IACHR, UNHRC, and other human rights bodies criticized the government’s handling of human rights issues during the year, including a September 29 joint statement by 30 countries at the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council.
Government Human Rights Bodies: In its May report, the Global Alliance of Human Rights Institutions, an international organization of national human rights institutions, recommended downgrading the country’s status and cited the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, also called the Public Defender, for its failure to respond impartially to cases of human rights abuses in 2014. On February 27, President Maduro approved the national Human Rights Plan for 2016-19. Several NGOs criticized the plan, saying that it was produced without consultation. Throughout the year the government gave the plan minimal attention.
The National Assembly’s subcommission on human rights played an insignificant role in human rights debates.