IACHR CONCERNED ABOUT THE USE OF THE PUNITIVE POWER OF THE STATE
TO SILENCE OPPONENTS IN VENEZUELA
Washington, D.C., March 24, 2010—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its deep concern over the use of the punitive power of the State to criminalize human rights defenders, judicialize peaceful social protests, and persecute through the criminal system persons the authorities consider political opponents in Venezuela.
During its 138th period of sessions, the Commission received updated information about the situation of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni Mora, who is deprived of liberty and for whom the Commission granted precautionary measures on January 11, 2010, after receiving a request alleging that she had been threatened with being burned alive in prison. The IACHR reported on the situation of Judge Afiuni Mora in its report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela. On December 10, 2009, the judge ordered the release of a person who had been deprived of liberty for more than two years, the maximum period for preventive detention contemplated under the law. The following day, on a blanket national radio and television broadcast, President Hugo Chávez called for a 30-year prison sentence for the judge, and one day later the Office of the Attorney General charged her with serious crimes.
During the sessions, the IACHR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression also received information about the detention of former governor and former presidential candidate Oswaldo Álvarez Paz and about the opening of an investigation of Guillermo Zuloaga by the Attorney General's Office. In both cases, the legal actions were initiated at the request of a member of the National Assembly.
According to the information received, on March 8, 2010, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a former governor of the state of Zulia and a member of the National Assembly, made allegations on a television program about supposed ties between high-level state officials and groups linked to drug trafficking. The following day, congressman Manuel Villalba, of the official United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office requesting an investigation into Álvarez Paz's conduct. Álvarez Paz was charged with committing various crimes established in the Venezuelan Criminal Code, including conspiracy against the republican form of government, public instigation to commit a crime, and public intimidation, false information, and public uncertainty. On March 22, Álvarez Paz was detained and on March 24 the court ratified his detention. Álvarez Paz is being held in a location of the National Office for Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP). Separately, on March 24, congressman Manuel Villalba also asked the Attorney General's Office to begin an investigation of Guillermo Zuloaga, president of the Globovisión television channel, for statements he made at an assembly of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA).
As the Commission has already stated in its report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela, the lack of independence and autonomy of the judiciary with respect to the political branches constitutes one of the weakest points of democracy in Venezuela, a situation that seriously hinders the free exercise of human rights in Venezuela. In the Commission’s judgment, it is this lack of independence that has allowed the use of the State’s punitive power in Venezuela to criminalize human rights defenders, judicialize peaceful social protest, and persecute political dissidents through the criminal system.
The Commission and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression have on repeated occasions expressed their serious concern about the situation of the right to freedom of expression in Venezuela. The space for public debate about Venezuelan government authorities is being increasingly reduced through the use of instruments such as the criminal justice system to silence critical or dissident expressions. In this regard, it is extremely troubling that those make allegations or state opinions about the situation in the country are charged with such offenses as the instigation to commit a crime. The public statements made by many government officials supporting the detention of Álvarez Paz and calling for criminal proceedings to be brought against other individuals such as Guillermo Zuloaga, simply because they expressed their opinions in public forums, demonstrate a troubling consensus among the government authorities that it is legitimate to identify those who criticize the government with criminals.
The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression urge the State of Venezuela to avoid using direct or indirect means to silence critical opinions or allegations made against authorities of the government, however disturbing or offensive these may be.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who act in a personal capacity, without representing a particular country, and who are elected by the OAS General Assembly.
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