UN human rights teams findings indicate patterns of rights violations amid mass protests in Venezuela

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GENEVA (8 August 2017) – Interviews conducted remotely by a UN human rights team paint a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela. The team’s findings also indicate patterns of other human rights violations, including violent house raids, torture and ill-treatment of those detained in connection with the protests. 

In the absence of responses from the Venezuelan authorities to requests for access, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein deployed a team of human rights officers to conduct remote monitoring of the human rights situation in the country from 6 June to 31 July, including from Panama. The team conducted some 135 interviews with victims and their families, witnesses, civil society organisations, journalists, lawyers, doctors, first responders and the Attorney-General’s Office, and also received information in writing from the Ombudsperson’s Office. 

Witnesses spoke of security forces firing tear gas and buckshot at anti-Government protestors without warning. Several of the individuals interviewed said tear gas canisters were used at short range, and marbles, buckshot and nuts and bolts were used as ammunition. Security forces have reportedly also resorted to the use of deadly force against demonstrators. 

Witness accounts suggest that security forces, mainly the National Guard, the National Police and local police forces, have systematically used disproportionate force to instil fear, crush dissent, and to prevent demonstrators from assembling, rallying and reaching public institutions to present petitions. Government authorities have rarely condemned such incidents. 

As of 31 July, the Attorney General’s Office was investigating 124 deaths in the context of the demonstrations. According to the UN Human Rights team’s analysis, security forces are allegedly responsible for at least 46 of those deaths, while pro-Government armed groups, referred to as “armed colectivos” are reportedly responsible for 27 of the deaths. It is unclear who the perpetrators in the remaining deaths may be. The Attorney-General’s Office was also investigating at least 1,958 reported cases of injuries, although the actual number of people injured may be considerably higher. Information collected by the team suggests that armed colectivos routinely break into protests on motorcycles, wielding firearms and harassing or in some cases shooting at people. 

While no official data is available on the number of detentions, reliable estimates suggest that between April 1, when the mass demonstrations began, and 31 July, more than 5,051 people have been arbitrarily detained. More than 1,000 reportedly remain in detention. In several of the cases reviewed by the UN Human Rights Office, there were credible reports of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces of such detainees, amounting in several cases to torture. Tactics used included electric shocks, beatings, including with helmets and sticks while handcuffed, hanging detainees by the wrists for long periods, suffocation with gas, and threats of killings – and in some cases threats of sexual violence – against the detainees or their families.  

Since the wave of demonstrations began in April, there has been a clear pattern of excessive force used against protesters. Several thousand people have been arbitrarily detained, many reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and even torture, while several hundred have been brought before military rather than civilian courts,” said Zeid. “And these patterns show no signs of abating.” 

“These violations have occurred amid the breakdown of the rule of law in Venezuela, with constant attacks by the Government against the National Assembly and the Attorney-General’s Office,” Zeid added. “The responsibility for the human rights violations we are recording lies at the highest levels of Government.” 

The High Commissioner said the decision by the Constituent Assembly on 5 August to dismiss the Attorney-General was deeply worrying, and he urged the authorities to guarantee independent and effective investigations of human rights violations involving security forces and armed colectivos. He called on the authorities to heed the call of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which has requested the State to take measures to ensure the protection of the former Attorney-General. 

High Commissioner Zeid also expressed serious concern about the many cases of violent and illegal house raids reported to the team. Victims and witnesses told the team that the raids were conducted without warrants, allegedly to weed out demonstrators. Reports also suggest that private property was destroyed during such raids. 

Journalists and media workers have indicated that security forces targeted them to prevent them from covering demonstrators. Journalists reported being shot at with tear gas canisters and buckshot, despite being clearly identified. They have been detained, threatened and have had their equipment stolen on several occasions. 

Some groups of demonstrators have also resorted to violence, with attacks reported against security officers. Eight officers have been killed in the context of the demonstrations.  

High Commissioner Zeid urged the authorities to immediately end the excessive use of force against demonstrators, to halt arbitrary detentions and to release all those arbitrarily detained. Zeid reminded the authorities that there is an absolute prohibition on the use of torture, under international human rights law. He also called for an end to the use of military justice to try civilians. 

“I call on all parties to work towards a solution to the rapidly worsening tensions in the country, to renounce the use of violence and to take steps towards meaningful political dialogue,” Zeid said. 

A full report with the team’s findings is scheduled to be released at the end of August this year. 

ENDS 

For more information and media requests, please contact Ravina Shamdasani + 41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org  

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