Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Venezuela’s silenced voices

This article first appeared on openDemocracy

The harsh treatment of political opposition in society, and the forms of torture that await them in the country’s overcrowded prisons, is a worrying sign for the year ahead in Venezuela.

Porlamar, Venezuela. September 17th, 2016: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro before the opening ceremony at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Porlamar, Margarita Island, Venezuela – Editorial credit: Golden Brown / Shutterstock.com

By Cecile Rossi

2016 was an eventful year for Maduro’s presidency and his opposition. In January, the Democratic Unity Table (MUD), which brings together 11 opposition parties, took control of the National Assembly, after winning parliamentary elections in December 2015. The sharing of power between current president Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and the opposition resulted in political deadlock. By February, the MUD had already initiated a petition to call for a recall referendum against Maduro.

Public support for the referendum was visible in several large protests organised against the regime. These protests were met with arrests and detention of opposition activists. Later, in September, over 170 people were arrested during a protest in Caracas, again calling for the referendum to remove Maduro to be held before the end of the year. It didn’t happen.

President Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 after former president Chávez’ death, has largely intensified repression and abuses of any kind of opposition to his party, the PSUV. Numerous critics of the regime are detained on thin charges and insubstantial evidence, suffer abuses in custody and have their trials repeatedly postponed, some waiting for up to several years for a trial. As of 1 July 2016, there were 1,998 political prisoners who were not convicted and waiting for trial, and 96 who were in prison. Under Maduro, disregard for due process and human rights have become the norm.

Unfair trials? The case of the Baduel family

Raúl Isaías Baduel was Defence Minister and Commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan army under president Chávez. He was highly loyal to the Comandante, and led a paratrooper operation that managed to stop the coup d’état against the president in 2002. But in 2007 he resigned and joined the opposition, stating that he disagreed with Chávez’s call for a referendum to expand executive power.

“They spent eight months in Uribana prison, at times in solitary confinement, and suffered torture.”

Two years later, Chávez dismissed several high-ranking officials whose loyalty he doubted and arrested Baduel. He was sentenced and then imprisoned on corruption charges until August 2015, when he was released on probation. The term of his probation was revoked on 12 January 2017 and he was held incommunicado until 3 March, when the court issued new charges of corruption and conspiracy against him, one day before the expiry of his seven years and 11 months sentence.

On March, 21, 2014, Raúl Emilio Baduel, the son of Raúl Isaías Baduel, was arrested and remains detained, after protesters claiming that there was “no reason to celebrate” formed a human chain to prevent a traditional spring celebration in Maracay, a city famous for its associations with both its agricultural hinterland and the military. While other protesters arrested on that day were released within three weeks, Raúl Emilio Baduel and his friend, Alexander Tirado, a prominent activist in the famous opposition party Voluntad Popular, were sent to a high security prison four hours away from the city. They spent eight months in Uribana prison, at times in solitary confinement, and suffered torture, as Tirado describes in a letter published by El Nacional. They were then transferred to another prison following mutinies in Uribana prison, which is known for being one of the most violent prison facilities in Venezuela.

Raúl Emilio Baduel was eventually charged with “public incitement” to commit crimes, public intimidation using explosive devices, and associating against the state. The defence claimed that the Venezuelan prosecutor’s office had presented inconsistent evidence against the accused, including attributing behaviours and describing circumstances of the arrest which did not match witness testimony or defence evidence. Furthermore, the defence argued that the prosecution obstructed its work by tampering evidence and witness testimonies. Raúl Emilio Baduel was eventually sentenced to eight years.

Raúl Emilio Baduel’s defence claims that he was denied due process, and that the judgment was influenced by the fact that his father became a sworn enemy of Chávez. Indeed, at the time of his arrest and still today, many human rights organisations maintain that the case against his father, Raúl Isaías Baduel, is politically motivated. They argue that Chávez punished Baduel for defecting to the opposition. This raises questions on the politicisation and mechanisms of arrests, detention and trials of government critics in Venezuela.

The mechanisms of arrests and detention

The Maduro government has been cracking down on all forms of opposition and from all political lines, including judges who refuse to follow its judicial line, such as Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was prosecuted in 2009 for granting probation to a government critic who had been awaiting trial in prison for three years. Local officials and young people who voice criticisms of the government have also been targets, as denounced by Human Rights Watch.

During protests against the regime, the government conducts rounds of arrests, which are at times arbitrary. While some people are released shortly after their arrest, others are arbitrarily and illegally detained for long periods of time, despite the lack of consistent evidence to support the charges against them.

According to the NGO Foro Penal Venezolano which provides legal counselling for political prisoners and lobbies for human rights, there are three categories of political prisoners. Some people are arrested because they pose a political threat to the government, as individuals. The purpose of their arrest is to isolate them from the population. This is the case of Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López, who was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison in October 2015.

The second category is those arrested and detained for exercising a ‘constitutional right against the official line’, such as Raúl Emilio Baduel, who participated in opposition protests. The purpose here is to intimidate the group to which they belong and discourage them from speaking up. Finally, some do not pose a direct political threat either individually or collectively, but become scapegoats to justify the official propaganda. Manuel Morales, the owner of a big supermarket chain, was detained for 170 days in 2015. He was blamed for the government’s economic mismanagement and the resulting food shortages.

“Inhumane treatment ranges from being forced to squat or kneel without moving for hours, listening to unbearably loud Chavista music and having sensitive body parts burned, to brutal beatings, electric shocks, and threats of murder or rape.”

The government sporadically releases political prisoners, before arresting an even greater number again. This is described by a lawyer, who works for Foro Penal Venezolano and asks not to be named, as a revolving-door effect: the government arrests, detains, and releases opposition figures on a rolling basis, in order to give the impression that political prisoners are regularly released. However, once a certain number are released, more are arrested and detained. He also claims that political prisoners are used as bargaining chips in negotiations between the government and the opposition. In 2016, according to Foro Penal Venezolano, 46 political prisoners were released, while another 56 were arrested.

While awaiting trial, and once convicted, political prisoners suffer “overcrowding, lack of food and high levels of violence” in prison, according to this lawyer. Some political prisoners are targets of sexual violence and torture. Inhumane treatment ranges from being forced to squat or kneel without moving for hours, listening to unbearably loud Chavista music and having sensitive body parts burned, to brutal beatings, electric shocks, and threats of murder or rape. Human Rights Watch also reports several cases of solitary confinement and other forms of psychological torture. In 2014, two mutinies took place in Uribana prison, as political prisoners protested against conditions of detention that included regular instances of physical violence.

The length of time spent awaiting trial, the treatment of political prisoners in detention, and sentencing is completely dependent on the person’s background. With regards to the wait for trial, the lawyer explains: “Venezuelan legislation states that accused people cannot spend more than two years awaiting sentencing. Yet jumping the norm is common practice in criminal tribunals in Venezuela”. In addition, sentences are often arbitrary or disproportionate. “For a student who happens to be apprehended in a peaceful demonstration, the sentence can range from inability to leave the national territory to 10 to 15 years in jail,” says the lawyer. Witness tampering and indefinitely postponed hearings are commonplace, while persons in detention are frequently not told what charges they are being held on.

Free wheeling

This whole process of arrest and detention repeats itself indefinitely because Venezuela lacks judicial independence. Former president Chávez extended his control of the Supreme Court (TSJ) and appointed his supporters as judges. Following the elections which gave the opposition coalition, the MUD, a majority at the National Assembly, the TSJ has been repeatedly blocking its decisions and declaring them void if they differed from, or challenged, the regime. As the TSJ fully supports the executive, and legislative power has been close to nullified, now Maduro alone decides of the fate of political prisoners, with barely any oversight or accountability in the judicial process.

Over the last decades, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has produced binding judgements to counter the politicisation of the courts in Venezuela, and has called for the political prisoners’ rights to be respected. On December, 10, 2013, Venezuela officially withdrew from the IACHR claiming that the Commission was violating its sovereignty, and that “supporting terrorism” against the “progressive” governments of Latin America.

On January, 14, 2017, following a request to investigate alleged abuses of political prisoners in Venezuela, the IACHR issued a ruling calling for the respect of the rights of political prisoners, notably Raúl Emilio Baduel’s, and asking the Government of Venezuela to take measures to ensure their integrity.

Venezuela’s harsh treatment of the opposition is not, however, likely to end. In fact, one of the very first things Tareck El Aissami, the new Vice President appointed by Maduro at the beginning of January and who has been blacklisted by the US for engaging in drug trafficking, did upon taking office was tasking intelligence services to go after opposition politicians. And so, as Maduro continues to tighten his grip on power, and his opposition continue to challenge him, it looks as though 2017 will also prove an eventful year in Venezuela.

About the author

Cecile Rossi is an MSc in Conflict Studies candidate at the London School of Economics.

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