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.
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.